Middle East Priority: A Regional Infrastructure Bank

Libya doesn't matter as much as finding jobs for the young protesters in Egypt

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Illustration by Matt Dorfman for TIME

The Japanese tsunami swept the Libyan civil war out of the news, just as the violence in Libya swept the far more consequential Egyptian revolution out of the news before it. That's how we roll in the mainstream media. There is an incessant tide of undifferentiated cataclysms; we rush to the sound of the guns and the natural disasters, especially if there are pictures. But all bang-bang is not equal. There are times, as in the case of Libya, when gunfire obscures more important news. Before the historic Japanese catastrophe changed the cable-news conversation, Libya was careering toward an American overreaction.

The peripheral importance of Libya was bloated by several factors—the passions in the streets seemed every bit as vital on television as those in Egypt; Muammar Gaddafi, in full flagrance, demanded the sort of unwarranted attention that a fender bender on the other side of the highway does—but the contending forces were rival tribes, about which we knew little. Barack Obama foolishly raised the stakes by saying the dictator had to go, which in turn led to daily media pressure: Why is he still there? What are you doing about it? Won't it be embarrassing if he won't go? What credibility will the American President have then? And the media spotlight was quickly filled by the President's opponents, who see every moment of hesitant policymaking as a sign of weakness rather than prudence.

All of this combined to create a policy sandstorm that obfuscated the truly astonishing events taking place in the Middle East—and where the Administration's real interests should lie. "What happens in Libya stays in Libya," a Middle Eastern diplomat told me. "What happens in Egypt affects the entire region." The constant National Security Council meetings about Libya, the discussions at the U.N. and NATO and the Arab League were all a diversion—as was the prospect of spending billions on (yet another) military campaign in an Islamic country, which would have far less lasting impact than spending those same billions on a well-planned and coordinated development program for the countries in the region with the largest influence and population, starting with Egypt.

The revolution in Egypt isn't over. It has barely begun. The military is in power, as it has been, essentially, for the past 60 years. And a crisis is coming, a classic crisis of rising expectations: What happens three months from now when life hasn't changed in any appreciable way for the hundreds of thousands of young people who took to the streets in Cairo? More than 60% of the population in Egypt is under the age of 30; those demographics are common in the region. An estimated 25% are unemployed.

These are the sort of calculations that caused President Obama to call National Security Council staffers Dennis Ross, Samantha Power and Gayle Smith into his office last summer. "He had his doubts that the Middle East status quo was sustainable," said one of those at the meeting. "He wanted us to come up with a long-term policy. He said, 'Don't avoid the hard questions.' Believe it or not, we finished our report the week that Tunisia exploded." The report concluded that the U.S. should support movements that called for peaceful reform and oppose any violence directed against those movements. This was a position guaranteed to offend some longtime Middle Eastern allies, like Saudi Arabia, but it is the policy that Obama has essentially followed. The rush of revolutions has created sticky short-term security questions, as in Libya, but the Obama study left one crucial question unanswered: Is there anything that can be done, quickly, to put the young people in Tahrir Square, and elsewhere in the region, to work?

The Obama Administration is studying various ways to help but is constrained by a lack of foreign aid money and the lugubrious reality of economic reform. There is an alphabet soup of sleepy international agencies that have traditionally been boggled by the Middle East's inability to create a thriving economy outside the oil business. There is talk of free-trade zones and seed money for small businesses. A better idea, bubbling up from the Gulf, would be to establish a Middle East Infrastructure Bank—pushed hard by the U.S. and funded by the lush sovereign wealth funds run by oil-rich countries in the region, as well as China and Europe—to move quickly toward paving roads and building housing, followed by larger projects like power plants. The cost to the U.S. might be about the same as two weeks of the Afghan war for the next 10 years. But something must be done, and soon, lest Tahrir Square fill again, six months from now, with protesters who are far less peaceful—and their radicalism catch fire across the Middle East.