Push more vigorously for Mideast democracy

I was having a discussion with my small son the other day about the freedoms we enjoy in America - the freedom to worship as we wish, to choose where we live and travel and work, to enjoy a free press and the right to speak out, to vote for the government of our choice. He was startled to learn that none of these freedoms we so easily take for granted existed in some of the countries I have lived and worked in over the years.

It's a cornerstone of American foreign policy that we strive to promote economic and political reform in such countries. We promote this because it's right. It's also in our self-interest. Countries that are stable and prospering are not usually the world's troublemakers.

The efforts of the United States and others have borne fruit. The trend toward greater freedom is in the right direction. There is one notable exception: the Islamic lands of the Middle East. The democracy gap between them and the rest of the world is dramatic. In such lands, the American voice promoting democracy has been much more muted than in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the erstwhile communist countries of Eastern Europe.

The reason for this lack of emphasis is oil. Oil that is the lifeblood of the United States and the Western world. Most of the world's easily extractable oil is in the hands of desert states clustered around the Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia sits on about 25 percent of the world's known oil reserves. Four other countries in the area contain another 40 percent.

The oil states are often in the hands of rulers who are autocratic and corrupt. To Middle Eastern allies like Saudi Arabia and Egypt we whisper that they need to change. They in turn snap back that if we press for, and they effect, democracy too rapidly, the alternative might be worse: extremist Islamic theocracies of the bin Laden ilk. We in turn murmur that if they don't reform, the result may be extremist Islamic theocracies anyway.

And while this gentle dialogue goes on, the oil continues to be pumped and to flow. The US, with only 5 percent of the world's population, guzzles 25 percent of the world's oil. Wouldn't US problems be solved then by Americans easing their dependence on Middle Eastern oil, perhaps eliminating such dependence altogether? Ideally, yes.

In this regard, the Bush administration took a significant step last week with a plan to power the cars of the future with hydrogen-based fuel cells. Fuel cells drawing hydrogen and oxygen from the air, if successfully developed, could ultimately replace the internal combustion engine, thus sharply reducing US use of oil for gasoline production.

But the experts say this could be 10 to 20 years away. So while the US can and should adopt a conservation and alternative-energy program that would leave it less hostage to the oil-producing lands of the Middle East, dependence on their oil is going to be a fact of life for the foreseeable future.

This does not mean that the US should not engage such allies as Saudi Arabia in a franker and more direct discussion of the relationship between the two countries. Fifteen of the 19 Arabs who hijacked airliners and killed thousands of Americans by crashing those planes into New York's World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon were Saudis. That alone gives the US some right to straight talk with the Saudi regime.

What kind of social structure bred such terrorists? What Saudi links were there with Osama bin Laden? What accommodation has there been in Saudi Arabia with extremist Islamic fundamentalism? What needs to be done to bring meaningful reforms to those Saudis, who are justifiably frustrated, without tipping power to those extremists who might preach reform but who actually would impose bin Laden and Taliban-like tyranny on the country?

And by the way, shouldn't Saudi Arabia be more cooperative in lowering the price of the oil it extracts for about a dollar a barrel and then sells to the US for anywhere between $15 and $30 a barrel, depending on how the price is rigged at a given moment in time?

No sensible person is suggesting that these Islamic countries can move overnight to Jeffersonian democracy. Such radical change could lead to destabilization and a threat to the West's oil supply that would be counter to American and other Western interests.

But there should be movement in the direction of democracy. That should be encouraged with more US vigor than has been the case hitherto.

John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor and currently editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News.

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