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Iraq's Lesson for Libya: Thousands of Armed, Young, and Unemployed Men Now Need Jobs

Posted: 12/01/11 12:23 PM ET

With the excitement about Moammar Qaddafi's downfall beginning to fade, Libya's new management has begun governing and reconstructing the war-torn nation.

Plenty of attention is being paid to the governance angle: Is the National Transitional Council a legitimate, representative body? When will elections be held? Is the new Libya going to be run by Islamists? Certainly these are important issues. Just as important, however, is the Libyan economy and how to get Libyans back to work.

The issue of employment is significant for a couple of reasons. First, though Qaddafi was a pariah who oppressed his people, these were not the only reasons Libyans eventually saw to his downfall. The Qaddafi regime had for decades deprived much of the population of economic opportunities, and the revolution was as much about economic disempowerment as it was about tyranny. Libya's new leadership must recognize that it will be expected to deliver economic opportunities quickly.

Secondly -- and possibly most crucially -- there are now tens of thousands of armed young Libyans who find themselves with a victory but few spoils. The rebels have experienced the collective euphoria that comes with revolution. However, that euphoria will soon fade as yesterday's revolutionary freedom fighters become today's unemployed and well-armed youth.

Libya's new leaders, along with the international community, should recognize that without an immediate focus on the provision of economic opportunities for many of the young fighters who helped win the war, this could well become a movie that we have all seen before throughout the Middle East. It is one that does not tend to end well.

The reconstruction of Libya will require a three-pronged strategy: political reforms and a representative and effective democracy, the repair of a decimated economy and national infrastructure, and effectively managing the expectations and needs of a newly hopeful, but demanding, populace. And all three objectives must, to the extent possible, be pursued simultaneously.

To meet the latter two objectives and to avoid the challenges posed by idle hands, it will be imperative for Libya to rapidly implement policies that provide some form of employment and economic opportunity. In the short term, this may require a program of national service, where young, working-age Libyans are conscripted into a professionalized security force, civilian reconstruction corps or similar structure that is in turn deployed to begin rebuilding the shattered country. Roads, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure need to be repaired and businesses, both local and foreign, must be given the confidence and the wherewithal to restart -- or even begin -- operations and investment.

To be sure, such a program of national service would not be a permanent, long-term solution. But it would bring the advantages of keeping idle hands busy, providing economic opportunity, contributing significantly to the rebuilding of destroyed infrastructure and providing new skills and training to young Libyans formerly deprived of many such opportunities. With a primary focus on addressing reconstruction, such a corps of workers could accelerate Libya's resurgence, funded by both a well-endowed treasury (with as much as $170 billion in foreign assets, $250 billion in foreign exchange reserves and continuous revenues from a strong extractive sector) and international assistance.

Where to find such funding is now the key. Much of the available funds are in limbo because of sanctions imposed by the Treasury Department, which sweepingly apply to "all U.S. persons and entities (companies, non-profit groups, government agencies, etc.), wherever located." That makes any reconstruction effort extremely difficult.

For example, Libya's $65 billion sovereign wealth fund, which was created in 2006 to manage the country's oil revenues, remains inaccessible. With the U.N. mandate authorizing military action coming to an end, so too must we end international sanctions that would hamper effective post-war stabilization.

Beyond the lifting of sanctions, it will be imperative that the U.S. government adopt a concerted, interagency approach to assisting with Libya's reconstruction. Myriad U.S. departments and agencies will be relevant in assisting with the establishment of a national service program in Libya. Aside from the departments of Defense and State, the full knowledge, expertise and experience of departments as diverse as Agriculture, Commerce and Energy will be needed to build capacity in Libya and ensure a successful and sustainable transition.

The real obstacle to this proposal lies in Washington's reticence to rally the political will necessary for such a program. Washington tends to have little problem mustering the fans and funds for the initial phase of an intervention, but the follow-through is what is often fumbled.

While attention toward Libya remained high after the beginning of the NATO air campaign and peaked again during Qaddafi's killing, rallying Congress and the Obama administration for such a sustained initiative will be difficult.

Forgetting Libya now would be as disastrous as it was for America to dismiss the thousands of young, armed Iraqi men who once fought for their country and then promptly became unemployed post-invasion.

By no means should a national service style employment program be seen as a source of permanent employment for Libyans or as a long-term solution for policy-makers. But the reality is that the patience of armed, bored young men, fresh from the high of revolution, tends to be in short supply. Policies that provide some form of employment are critical now.

Michael Shank is U.S. vice president at the Institute for Economics and Peace. Follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Shank. Follow IEP on Twitter at @GlobPeaceIndex. J.J. Messner is a senior associate at the Fund for Peace. Follow J.J. on Twitter at @JJMessner.

 

Follow Michael Shank on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Michael_Shank