Liberation of Iraq Crucial First Step in Creating Economic Opportunities in the Middle East

Posted September 3, 2003 at 8:54am

The United States has a vital interest in changing the way people across the Middle East are governed, so that the repression and zealotry that have taken root in the region are replaced by the incentives freedom and opportunity can offer an educated and talented people. America’s just liberation of Iraq is bringing about dramatic and long overdue political change in the Arab world. A key question for American policy is how to encourage that change, using every policy instrument at our disposal. I believe we must expand our range of economic, cultural and political tools to help give the region’s people a stake and a voice in how they are ruled, with greater levels of democracy and prosperity serving as an antidote to the hatred whose malignancy was brought home to Americans on Sept. 11, 2001.

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice has rightly urged us to make a “generational commitment” to transforming the Arab world, in the same way America’s political and economic commitment transformed Germany and Japan after World War II. President Bush has spoken eloquently of Iraq’s liberation as a catalyst for the spread of political and economic freedom across the region. I strongly support this vision. Until Arab and Muslim people are free to choose their leaders and get ahead in growing economies, many, lacking political and economic opportunity, will remain susceptible to the influence of terrorists and tyrants who would blame America for their predicament and prey on their condition to fan hostility against us.

Our liberation of Iraq, and our necessary, long-term commitment to its economic reconstruction and democratic development, are central to this strategy of transforming the Arab world. American leadership on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, public diplomacy and democracy programs across the region are also critical. Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and I have proposed an additional tool for pursuing American interests: immediate trade privileges for nations from the greater Middle East that do not support terror, support the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, want to pursue reform, and seek to increase prosperity in a region that globalization has largely left behind.

President Bush has proposed establishing a Middle East Free Trade Area within a decade. I strongly support that concept, but because of the critical interests involved, I support acting immediately to lay the groundwork for its implementation. Granting duty-free, quota-free access to the U.S. market for selected imports from qualifying Muslim nations would jump-start the economic reform we are encouraging them to undertake by providing them with immediate incentives and immediate benefits. It would help create the necessary conditions for meaningful, comprehensive trade agreements down the road. It would be a tangible expression of America’s commitment to improving the lives of the people of the region by encouraging change through economic liberalization and growth, rather than simply holding out the promise of free trade agreements for which few nations are economically and institutionally prepared.

Our legislation covers the entire Arab world, except state sponsors of terror, and also includes Muslim nations of strategic interest to the United States like Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan, none of which are included in the administration’s free-trade proposal, and each of which would benefit significantly from American trade privileges. Because qualifying nations would necessarily have to support the war on terror, support the Middle East peace process, and be making tangible progress on democratic reform and protecting human rights, the allure of access to the U.S. market under the terms of our legislation could encourage Middle Eastern nations to begin certain reforms to qualify in the first place, and the ensuing trade privileges would hopefully deepen that reform commitment. The incentives offered by our legislation would chip away at the region’s state-centric, protectionist, oil-dominated economies, which have created enormous income disparities and left a dangerous number of people without work and without hope.

We have successfully pursued trade preference programs with the nations of the Andes, the Caribbean and sub-Saharan Africa, with tangible results. Would anyone argue today that the greater Middle East is less important?

Radical Islamic terrorism is a complex threat, one that requires a global, long-term campaign by the United States and our allies to combat using every tool available to us. Free trade, public diplomacy and other forms of “soft power” are no substitute for military and intelligence operations against terrorists and their rogue state sponsors. Over the long term, however, changing the way people across the Middle East live and are governed by empowering them to pursue the opportunities an open economy and free society have to offer is our best defense against the active campaign for Muslim hearts and minds the terrorists are waging against us.

We will win this struggle, not because of our superior military force or wealth, but because our advocacy of political freedom and economic opportunity speak to humankind’s universal values. Empowering people in the Arab and Muslim worlds with a political voice in their own nations and the prospect of a prosperous future, where reward lies not in martyrdom for jihad but in a decent standard of living for oneself and one’s family and hope for a better life, is the most effective way to drain the swamp in which the terrorists operate. I hope Congress and the administration will consider our legislation to spur economic opportunity and increased openness through trade with the Middle East one component of a comprehensive campaign to help Arab and Muslim peoples rid themselves of the dictatorial rule and parasitic terrorism which for too long have stifled democratic and economic development in this critical region.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.