The cost of oil won’t be far from the president’s mind, either: With global demand pushing the price to nearly $100 per barrel, he’ll want to discuss ways to increase the supply with the region’s oil sheiks.
Let’s hope he also brings up the importance of freer trade. In the past, Bush has championed the cause of open markets in the Middle East–and even with so many other concerns demanding his attention, now is no time to let up.
“The Arab world has a great cultural tradition, but it is largely missing out on the economic progress of our time,” said Bush several years ago. “By replacing corruption and self-dealing with free markets and fair laws, the people of the Middle East will grow in prosperity and freedom.”
The president once proposed a vast Middle East Free Trade Agreement, and suggested that it might be in place by 2013. It was a worthy goal, if only because countries that share close economic ties are less likely to fight each other. Think of it this way: A middle class for the Middle East is in the national-security interests of the United States.
Yet the President has come to realize that for the time being, his vision of MEFTA, however powerful in concept, will remain at best a distant hope.
Still, in recent years the United States has taken small but concrete steps in the right direction, by negotiating and approving free-trade agreements with Bahrain, Morocco, and Oman. During the Clinton administration, we also struck deals with Israel and Jordan.
There’s real value in trade with these countries. I should know, because I’m the customer of an Israeli company that builds a drip-irrigation system that I use to water my crops here in California.
Farmers in Israel and my part of California may be worlds apart, but we have at least one thing in common: We have to irrigate our crops because rainfall doesn’t meet our needs. Israel’s concerns are especially pressing because it can’t necessarily rely upon the goodwill of its neighbors to make sure it receives enough water to satisfy the agricultural requirements of its population.
My system comes with drip tape and filters–we lay the pipe and tape, we set up generic pumps, and watch our crops grow. The company’s service is excellent and its efficiency incredible: We figure that virtually none of the water we move into our fields evaporates.
I don’t especially care who makes my farm equipment, whether it’s my next-door neighbor or someone who shivers in a Siberian igloo. I want the finest tools at the best price. As it happens, my Israeli irrigation system is manufactured in Fresno.
It’s a case study in the benefits of globalization. When we combine the ingenuity of Israelis who must survive in extreme conditions with the manufacturing know-how of Californians plus the high-quality care that only locals can provide, everyone benefits. And that includes my customers, even if they don’t appreciate exactly how much goes into what they eat. They get to enjoy a better product at a lower price.
Free trade makes these connections possible–and we should have more of it, not less.
The next president will want to pick up where the last two have left off, and continue to strike free-trade agreements with the countries of the Middle East. The Clinton administration concluded two and the Bush administration negotiated three. Could the next president finalize four? It would take real determination, but if it moved us closer to a comprehensive system like MEFTA, it would be well worth the effort.
Ted Sheely raises lettuce, cotton, tomatoes, wheat, pistachios, wine grapes and garlic on a family farm in the California San Joaquin Valley. He is a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology www.truthabouttrade.org