- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 30, 2004

One of the most important, yet frequently overlooked, recommendations offered by the September 11 commission is the need to “engage the struggle of ideas.” The government must define “what it stands for.” We have a crucial advantage over the terrorists as “we can offer these parents a vision that might give their children a better future.” The commission report states that “a comprehensive U.S. strategy to counter terrorism should include economic policies that encourage development, more open societies, and opportunities for people to improve the lives of their families.”

The Middle East Partnership Initiative, the Broader Middle East Initiative and endeavors aimed at expanding bilateral trade relations toward the creation of a U.S.-Middle East Free Trade Area, represent a concerted effort to address the root causes of Islamist extremism and terrorism in the region. The objective is for the United States to proactively engage and support reformers in these countries and assist in developing the Middle East into a bastion of stable free-market democratic societies.

The programs developed and funded under these initiatives directly address the deficiencies identified in the Arab Human Development Reports.

The authors of these reports repeatedly argue that the root cause for Arab underdevelopment is threefold — a deficit of freedom, a deficit of women’s rights and a deficit of knowledge. They conclude that Arab countries must begin to rebuild their societies by taking steps to provide for full respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms as the cornerstones of good governance; the integration and complete empowerment of women; education as a means of achieving social advancement, rather than a means of perpetuating poverty; and a discriminatory class system.

Thus, economic reforms and trade liberalization are directly intertwined with political reforms, with success on the commercial front contingent upon progress on the political front.

Some leaders in the region have already heeded these calls and have taken tangible steps toward political, social, and economic reform, particularly King Abdullah in Jordan and fellow reformist leaders in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Morocco.

Yet many others continue to deny their people the most fundamental human rights and civil liberties.

Those in the Middle East who toil for freedom, democracy, religious tolerance, human rights, women’s rights and the pursuit of peace and social justice must be given the support that they deserve. They should not have to live behind the shadow of repressive regimes and even more repressive terrorist networks. We must see to it that they are given the voice that they deserve, and the freedoms that they have been denied until this point.

We must assist them in developing the tools to repair themselves socially, while simultaneously acting to develop institutions that can rehabilitate them economically.

We all have a personal stake in ensuring the success of these initiatives. Congress must not only provide the necessary funding for programs that “give hope” and “engage the struggle of ideas,” but must also take a proactive role in facilitating such a transition to free-market democracies. Accordingly, I have been working with my counterparts in the region toward the creation of bilateral interparliamentary exchanges to assist in the development and strengthening of their nascent legislative institutions.

Since the 1950s, U.S. policy toward the Middle East has focused on trying to meet the economic and social needs of the people in the region. The desire to help raise the quality of life of our fellow human beings in the Arab world has been and must be a fundamental premise of our actions.

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, the need to help free the people of the region from deprivation, in all its manifestations, has become a matter of national and global security.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican, is chairman of the House International Relations Subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia.

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