Book Summaries politics Politics

Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security Summary

This book by Sarah Chayes makes the argument that corruption is the precursor for violent extremism and not the other way around.  

The Prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he at least avoids hatred. . . . This he can always do if he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects, and from their women. —Machiavelli, The Prince

Nizam Al-Mulk was one of the greatest administrators of the Muslim world in the 11th century. He initiated Madrasas (residential institutions for higher learning).

Al-Mulk insisted that a government’s survival depended on its ability to hold its highest officials accountable, and to administer justice.

Erasmus said that the law should protect all members of society, but particularly the disenfranchised. He warned of the effects of acute inequality and advocated for redistributive income tax.

 “He who is threatened, and sees himself constrained by necessity either to act or to suffer, becomes a most dangerous man for the Prince,” – Machiavelli


The classic error foreign influencers make in Afghanistan is to single out a proxy from the Afghan community who is trusted, and to work through them. What happens over time, in both Afghanistan and in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Iron Curtain, is that people figure out how to game the system. They make the right noises about democracy and whatever values the West want to proliferate and exploit their position to enrich themselves, while disempowering their neighbors.

These pseudo-reformers rise to positions of power and become an indispensable part of the corrupt system.


Another country plagued by public sector bribery, corruption, bullying, extortion and other mafia-like practices is Tunisia.

Nothing is more damaging to the subjects and prejudicial and sinister to the king than royal inaccessibility and seclusion; and nothing impresses the hearts of the subjects and functionaries more than ease of access to the king. – Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali

It has also been long known that a king or tyrant who wishes too much to dispossess his people, will be relentless in his greed. The more the king steals, the greedier they become – avarice has no bounds.

Tunisian banks gave away free money to political insiders, with assurance of recapitalization from state funds.


Likewise, in Egypt, people demanded the return of squandered funds and for investment that would benefit the general public.

Gamal Mubarak, the younger of the two sons of Hosni Mubarak, had a crony capitalist clique around him. And this crony capitalistic structure in government pervaded alongside but independently of a military kleptocratic structure, and both contributed to the dissolution of the Egyptian economy.

Egypt stopped collecting taxes and left people without supervision. Opportunists filled the void, and this allowed a gigantic shadow economy to flourish.

Galal Amin, a professor at the American University of Cairo, called this phenomenon the “soft state.”

A soft state is a state that passes laws but does not enforce them. The elites can afford to ignore the law because their power protects them from it, while others pay bribes to work round it. Everything is up for sale, be it building permits for illegal construction, licenses to import illicit goods, or underhanded tax rebates and deferrals. The rules are made to be broken and to enrich those who break them, and taxes are often evaded. People clamor for positions of influence so that they may turn them to personal gain. Favors are sold or dispensed to protégés, relatives, and sycophants.

This weakness of the state encourages corruption.

The Two Western Camps

There are two points of view on governance in the West. One believes the necessity and virtue of government. People in this camp sees government as a collection of public servants who are devoted to the common good. There are some lapses, but these are exceptions. For these Westerners, the idea of a government being transformed into a criminal organization (as in the Middle East), that it may have repurposed the mechanisms of the state to serve its ends, is too challenging for them to understand.

The other camp is suspicious of government. Too much government interference is the real problem, and it can be mitigated through privatization and deregulation. If left alone, the freedom of the market will solve everything.

The overwhelming evidence that points in the opposite direction, that shows that market liberalization and privatization often lead to the creation of kleptocratic networks that help exacerbate corruption, and not reduce it, is too complex for this group to grasp.

What protected abuse of power in the west was not elections, but self-correcting mechanisms within government that put those in power in check. It was a harsh and painful lesson that Arab countries learned during the Arab Spring.

Puritans and Extremists

Christians puritans are like modern Islamic extremists in their iconoclasm – their desire to punish nonconformists, but not only that. They both articulate their struggle as a reaction to kleptocratic practices of local rulers, and in the modern case, inspired and enabled by the United States.

Atiya (who was killed in a drone strike in 2011) went on to blast the aspects of Western culture he deemed most objectionable—excesses that have seemed especially pronounced since the 1990s: “It is a corrupt, wayward, and unjust system . . . based on beastly behavior, and seven principles: greed, gluttony, injustice, selfishness, extreme materialism, abandonment of religion.”

He criticized the U.S for promoting kleptocratic governance and from preventing people from practicing Islam.

Both Christians and Muslims have tried to correct behavior through strict codes derived from religious text. And if necessary, they have imposed it by force.

Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global SecurityThieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security Summary 1

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.