Focusing on the Potential of Economic Freedom


In the wake of September 11, Americans desperate to understand the new Age of Terrorism turned a scholarly book by a Princeton professor into a national best-seller. The title of Bernard Lewis’s small masterpiece asked a provocative question: What Went Wrong? He wasn’t talking specifically about the fall of the Twin Towers, but rather the matter of why Islam, once a grand civilization on the cutting edge of science and technology, seemed at war with modernity.

I hope that some future scholar will be able to write a sequel to Lewis’s book and call it “What Went Right!” If that ever happens, this person may be able to point to the events of the last few weeks as decisive. And in the months and years to come, free trade may be able to play a small role in helping things continue on their proper path.

Who imagined the stunning developments we’ve seen recently in the Middle East? Some people have likened what’s happening to the collapse of Communism 15 years ago. Right now, that may be a stretch, but consider the following:

  • Iraq has replaced Afghanistan as the world’s newest democracy.
  • An assassination in Beirut has inspired thousands in Lebanon to take to the streets and demand an end to the Syrian occupation of their country–and Syria appears to be obliging, at least in part.
  • A real presidential election in Palestine has ushered in a new leader whose apparent commitment to practical problem solving is a welcome departure from the poisonous politics of his predecessor Yasser Arafat. Israel looks ready and willing to work with him.
  • In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak says he will permit opposition candidates in this fall’s presidential election. This opportunity will offer his countrymen their first real whiff of democracy in his 24-year rule.
  • Saudi Arabia held elections for local government posts last month, and last week it even promised that women would be allowed to vote in future ballots.

Perhaps all of these developments will lead nowhere. We could be witnessing a Prague Spring–one step forward, two steps back–rather than the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But nothing is inevitable, and the United States must do everything in its power to keep this encouraging progress on track.

One of the most vexing problems in the Middle East, of course, is Iran and its nuclear ambitions. Contrary to what’s been happening in the rest of the region, there’s been no good news coming out of Tehran lately.

Diplomats have tried desperately to contain the ayatollahs, but so far without success. Their latest gambit is to dangle membership in the World Trade Organization before the Iranians.

No matter what the fate of this strategy in the near term, it is perhaps worth pursuing over the long haul. If it inspires the Iranians to make concessions, then it may serve a useful national security purpose. It also may be worth doing in its own right, because economic freedom often represents an advance toward political freedom. If free trade begins to pry open Iran’s closed society, there’s no telling what ideas might take root, from religious freedom to open elections and democracy. After watching recent events in the Middle East, I’m not willing to bet against anything.

At the same time, I don’t want to oversell what membership in the WTO represents. China belongs to the WTO even though it isn’t exactly a paragon of freedom and democracy. The same goes for Cuba, Myanmar, and Zimbabwe. Yet we need to pull every lever within reach that promotes reforms in the Middle East, and the WTO is one of them. Afghanistan and Iraq are two countries that definitely would profit from joining.

President Bush certainly knows the WTO can promote freedom. That’s why he recently discussed the possibility of membership with the new president of Ukraine–another country that has benefited from startling changes in recent months, even though the reasons for its transformation came from different sources than we’re seeing in Baghdad, Beirut, and Gaza.

Whatever happens, we need to keep our basic principles in clear focus. Bush outlined them clearly in his ambitious inaugural address: “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands,” he said. “The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.”

This includes economic freedom–and we should use trade as a tool for helping us make things right everywhere they’re wrong.

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