The President Gets It

I returned last week from my first-ever trip to the Arabian Gulf, visiting Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. I was preparing to tell my friends in the Bush-Cheney administration about the great opportunity I found there to help build a more peaceful, free, prosperous and democratic region when I heard President Bush announce his proposal for the establishment of a Middle East regional free-trade area with the United States. Bravo, Mr. Bush; that’s the kind of bold and audacious proposal so critically important to improving our ties to the Arab and Muslim world post-Saddam Hussein.

While I was in Abu Dhabi, I met with Sheik Mohammad bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, chief of staff of the UAE Armed Forces, and Ahmed Ali Al Sayegh, chairman of Off Set, to discuss a 21st century Marshall Plan for the whole region. Sheik Mohammad told me that there has never been a more appropriate time for a U.S.-led initiative to open up trade, communications, commerce and investment between the Arab world and the West. I was reminded of his comments a few days later, when I read the remarks of Egyptian-American Professor Saad Eddin Ibrahim in The Washington Post. He said, “Democracy and development are two important requisites for a dynamic, peaceful regional equilibrium.”

Sheik Mohammad informed me that the Dolphin gas pipeline from Qatar to Abu Dhabi and then on to Oman will be the first large-scale cooperative economic development undertaking of the region. What a perfect time to use that pipeline as a connecting thread to begin weaving together the fabric of a totally integrated economic region of trade, commerce and liberalization.

In reading the president’s speech, it dawned on me how well he understands the necessity not only of laying out a road map to peace between Israel and the Palestinians but also of paving that road to peace with sound economic policies for the entire region so as, in his words, “to bring the Middle East into an expanding circle of opportunity, to provide hope for the people who live in that region.” In proposing the Middle East free-trade zone, the president made the profound observation that “free markets and trade have helped defeat poverty and taught men and women the habits of liberty.”

What the president was saying is often hard for Americans to understand since the “habits of liberty” are sown into the very fabric of our society. Those habits don’t exist currently in many parts of the world, and they cannot be taught in the abstract. The habits of liberty, like any other habit, result from constant repetition, and there is no better opportunity for practicing freedom and the responsibility that undergirds it than engaging in business, commerce and open trade.

It warmed the heart of this old supply-side, free-trade, pro-growth, Abraham Lincoln Republican to hear our president extol the centrality of entrepreneurship and capital formation for the people of the Middle East and to see him expound on the indispensability of property rights, sound business development and liberalized trade. To quote the president, “By replacing corruption and self-dealing with free markets and fair laws the people of the Middle East will grow in prosperity and freedom.” And by the way, lest we sound smug and self-righteous, we still have a ways to go to eliminate corruption and self-dealing of our own on Wall Street.

The president’s proposal of a Middle East free-trade area can be just the beginning. It provides the foundation for new thinking about an area-wide plan to bring prosperity, liberalization and democratic development to the region – a 21st century Marshall Plan, if you will, for Iraq, Afghanistan and the entire Central Asia and Middle East regions and eventually all of Africa.

I have been writing about such a plan for almost a year now since I spoke at the Fortune CEO Conference last summer, where I met King Abdullah of Jordan. I discussed the idea with the king and subsequently discussed it with Prince Hassan of Jordan, who recently wrote me in support of the idea and to inform me of his own work on a Muslim benevolent fund to help underwrite such a plan.

The idea of direct involvement by the people of the regions is critical, and it is essential that we find a way to provide for ongoing consultation among Western experts and the people. We learned from the original Marshall Plan in Europe after World War II how essential it was for the Germans and Japanese themselves to design their new institutions and new policies and how valuable was the consultation and the give and take that occurred between Americans and the people of Europe and Japan as new market-oriented democracies were created.

In the president’s speech, he spoke of liberty and justice being found in every human heart, including in the hearts of the men and women of the Muslim world who make up one-fifth of all humanity. “Freedom has advanced,” he said, “because it is a way to lift millions out of poverty and improve their lives.” The president has launched the world on a great new adventure, and it is up to every one of us, in every way we can, to do our part in helping bring peace and prosperity to all mankind.