It’s been 14 years since President George W. Bush declared a “global war on terror.” Today, after spending $1.6 trillion on that war and killing 101 terrorist chieftains, from Osama bin Laden to “Jihadi John,” the West remains just as vulnerable, if not more so, to extremists who can recruit fighters and strike any Western capital virtually at will. Now that another president – François Hollande of France – has also declared war on terror (as have other European leaders), are the prospects for victory really any better? I have my doubts.
It is time to consider that the strength of our opponents derives, at least to some degree, from sentiments similar to those that animated the American Revolutionary War and the French Revolution: frustration with and alienation from the prevailing system. In Britain’s American colonies before 1776, and throughout France in the years leading up to 1789, ordinary people became convinced that their lives, assets, and businesses had been subject for too long to the predations of arbitrary rulers. That same estrangement is felt nowadays in the Middle East and North Africa.
After all, the Arab Spring began when a poor Tunisian entrepreneur, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in December 2010 to protest the merciless expropriation of his business. He committed suicide – as his brother Salem told me in an interview recorded for American public television – for “the right of the poor to buy and sell.”
Within 60 days of Bouazizi’s death, his message galvanized the Arab world. Sixty-three more small entrepreneurs across the greater Middle East replicated his self-immolation, inciting hundreds of millions of Arabs to take to the streets and topple four governments. The force of their rage continues to destabilize the entire region.
The West didn’t grasp this message. As usual, it focused on macroeconomic adjustment and technical assistance, failing even to consider the property rights of the poor majority. This is an old problem: instead of remembering that property rights are what emancipated their societies from sovereign bullies, left-leaning Westerners think that protecting property is rightist dogma, conservatives take legal property rights for granted, and economists associate them with real-estate deals and carpentry.
The West’s failure to encourage Arab governments to establish, protect, and enhance their citizens’ property rights (and provide them with the means) created a vacuum, into which stepped the region’s romantic nationalists and their terrorist offshoots, which are now sending their foot soldiers to Europe. Of course, these fanatics will not be able to boost living standards for the poor – far from it, as the predatory rule of the so-called Islamic State in its self-proclaimed caliphate proves. But in an atmosphere of deprivation and frustration, those who make false promises easily attract adherents.
Written by Hernando de Soto
You can read the whole article on the website of the World Economic Forum