In the view of our Laputan foreign-policy establishment, what is happening in Syria and elsewhere is a conflict between “democracy” and dictatorship. Valiant youths who fight for “freedom” are destined to triumph, bringing happiness and prosperity to their formerly oppressed lands. This is the Whig version of history—the progressive narrative. It bears little resemblance to reality.

A Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi came closer to truth. He was quoted in the New York Times as saying that Syria faces “gang warfare.”

Gangs are one of the most basic, and most potent, building blocks of stateless Fourth Generation war. We commonly think of gangs in connection with crime. But through most of history, the line between crime and war was blurred, often to the point of vanishing. (See Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century.)

It was the state that drew the line clearly, but today in much of the Middle East and elsewhere states and the state system are collapsing. What is succeeding the state looks much like the 14th century Europe Tuchman describes: people and regions are at the mercy of roving bands of armed men who hire themselves out as soldiers when they can and otherwise take what they want from anyone too weak to resist them. Their only loyalty is to each other—to their gang.

One of the characteristics shared by most disintegrating states is a vast surplus of young men who have no access to jobs, money, or women. Gangs are a magnet for them. We see this in American contexts as well: in public schools, in ethnic neighborhoods, and in our prisons, most of which are controlled not by wardens but by racially defined gangs.

Young men are also drawn to fighting, which, conveniently, is something gangs do. Much of what we see in states struggling for their lives such as Syria is supply-side war. Fighting spreads not because of some “cause” like democracy but because idle young men see a fight and join in. Why not? They have nothing to do, nothing to lose, and thanks to their new gang and AK-47, lots to take: money, women, and fame. The New York Times reported from Aleppo:

Residents said there were not just clashes between the government and insurgents, but also rival militias from the countryside fighting for control of individual streets. … In a central old quarter, one man said a friend had warned him not to visit because young gunmen had established a checkpoint to rob car passengers.

Gangs fight not only the government but also each other, and their internecine wars further weaken the state. We need look no further than to our southern neighbor, Mexico, where the killing fields spread as drug gangs massacre one another and any civilians or agents of the state who get in their way. The state arose to bring order, and widening gang wars reveal the state’s impotence. In the struggle for legitimacy that lies at the core of Fourth Generation war, a state that cannot control gangs becomes an object of contempt for friend and foe alike.

While gangs are not prominent on the radar screen in America at present, they have been in the past and will be again. The film Gangs of New York, set in the mid-19th century, was not fiction. West Side Story reflected a fear of gangs that was widespread in the 1950s. Crips and Bloods were big news a few years back.

The voices in Washington who call for us to suppress gangs in places halfway around the world underestimate the opponent. When the economic crisis really begins, it may take all the resources of the American state to control gangs here at home. They are no less a refuge for unemployed young men in Chicago or Atlanta or Tuscon than in Benghazi or Damascus.

Meanwhile, if you want to envision places such as Libya, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali—the list keeps growing—you could do worse than to think of spreading rumbles in the ’hood. That is a far more accurate picture than the two-sided “democracy vs. dictatorship” image purveyed by politically correct Polyannas. The bulletins of the Syrian Foreign Ministry, it seems, mislead less than those of the U.S. State Department.

William S. Lind is director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation.