Free trade can change the Middle East

Posted in Democracy , Other | 14-Jun-04 | Author: Robert Zoellick| Source: International Herald Tribune

King Mohammed VI of Morocco is soon to visit the United States.
A democratic mosaic

WASHINGTON In Tangier's Museum of Antiquities stands one of the most famous mosaics in Morocco, "The Voyage of Venus." It can best be appreciated by stepping back and taking in the full picture, so that each brightly colored tile blends into the others.

As the United States signs a new free-trade agreement with Morocco this week, we need to recognize the full mosaic of interests at stake.

The larger picture is one of a new, deeper economic and political partnership with Morocco, a bright light of reform and moderation in the Islamic world. For too long, the Middle East and North Africa have been places of stagnant economies, religious extremism and lack of hope. Democracy is rare, small businesses are stymied by governments and a favored few, and militants want to turn back the clock to the seventh century.

Yet a different vision is beginning to emerge. Moderate Arab states such as Morocco are reclaiming the ideas of an Islamic golden age when a vibrant culture allowed young scholars to explore the frontiers of knowledge and when commerce thrived. Their reformist, tolerant vision of Islam includes free parliamentary elections, the sale of state-owned businesses, the encouragement of foreign investment that can be connected to broad-based development, and better protection of the rights of women and of workers.

In Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco and elsewhere, young leaders are struggling for the soul of Islam. It is a battle of leaders who embrace tolerance against extremists who thrive on hatred. It is a conflict of economic reformers against those who fear modernization because it threatens their power to intimidate. And it is a contest of those who welcome closer ties with the West against those who see the West as an enemy.

America's strategic interest in the outcome of this struggle is immense, but America's ability to influence it is limited. From the Middle East to Southeast Asia, only fellow Muslims can lead their brothers and sisters to a better Islamic future.

But the United States is not without influence. Through free-trade agreements, for example, America can embrace reforming states, encouraging their transformation and bolstering their chances for success even as it opens new markets for American goods and services.

The free-trade agreement with Jordan, enacted in 2001, was the first step. Closer trade ties and the removal of tariffs have resulted in a 197 percent increase in two-way trade and have drawn foreign investment to Jordan, including knowledge and entrepreneurial industries such as pharmaceuticals and software. The Jordanians estimate that expanded trade has helped to create 35,000 jobs. Jordan has also forged closer economic ties with Israel, America's first free-trade partner in the region.

To capitalize on this new interest in combining modernity with the Muslim world, President George W. Bush outlined a plan last year to achieve a Middle East Free Trade Area. Now Morocco is joining with Jordan by signing a free-trade agreement with the United States. Following fast, the United States and Bahrain concluded free-trade negotiations a few weeks ago, and we look forward to signing that agreement next. These leaders have inspired the interest of others. The United States has now signed trade-facilitation framework agreements with eight other Arab countries, from Algeria to Yemen, as a preliminary step toward free trade. Piece by piece the administration is building a mosaic of modernizers with a plan that offers trade and openness as tools for Muslim leaders looking toward the rebirth of an optimistic and tolerant Islam.

In the United States, unfortunately, some don't see that bigger picture. Opponents of these free-trade agreements are preoccupied with demands for extra provisions on labor, claiming for example that unions have been pressured by government. But these objections, made by labor unions that don't want foreign competition, are self-defeating.

The agreements with Morocco and Bahrain, like the Jordan agreement, require U.S. partners to enforce labor and environmental laws and strive to upgrade standards. The critics ignore the labor reforms that Morocco has already enacted. The United States is the only nation pressing to include enforceable labor and environmental protections in its trade agreements.

The economic isolationists' fight to defeat such trade agreements would rob the United States of one of its most powerful tools, exactly when America should be integrating trade and economic reforms with the struggle for democracy and tolerance that is vital to its security.

The coming months will see a debate over which perspective prevails. The future of far more than a trade agreement hangs in the balance.

Robert B. Zoellick is the U.S. trade representative.