US President George W. Bush offered a powerful economic incentive to the nations of the Arab world on Friday by proposing the creation of a US-Middle East free trade area by 2013.
In a commencement speech to 1,200 graduates of the University of South Carolina, Bush promoted the trade deal as a symbol of American commitment to an Arab world alienated by two American-led wars in two Muslim countries in the last two years, and as a means of bringing stability to a region bypassed by globalization and torn by terrorism.
"The Arab world has a great cultural tradition, but is largely missing out on the economic progress of our time," said Bush, who stood out among the maroon South Carolina robes in a deep blue graduation robe from Yale, his alma mater. The trade deal, he said, would bring the Middle East into an "expanding circle of opportunity."
Bush also said that Secretary of State Colin Powell, who left Friday night for the Middle East, and Robert Zoellick, the US trade representative, would meet with regional leaders in Jordan next month to discuss economic liberalization.
"We will work with our partners to ensure that small and mid-sized businesses have access to capital, and support efforts in the region to develop central laws on property rights and good business practices," Bush said. "By replacing corruption and self-dealing with free markets and fair laws, the people of the Middle East will grow in prosperity and freedom."
Administration officials acknowledged that the idea of creating a free-trade zone that would stretch across North Africa and Asia from the Atlantic faced enormous hurdles.
"This is not something that's going to occur tomorrow," a senior administration official said. Officials noted that the 23-nation region had more trade barriers than any other part of the world and that many of the countries had highly restricted economies. Some of the nations -- Libya, Syria and Iran -- are operating under US economic sanctions.
On Friday a senior administration official said that some nations were clearly more ready than others for joining a Middle East free trade area. The US would work with the countries of the region in a series of graduated steps, the official said, and those that demonstrated sufficient economic and political reform would become eligible for inclusion in the deal.
Officials said that the US government would continue to help countries that demonstrated reforms to become members of the WTO.
Democrats praised Bush's approach as an important step toward pressuring nations in the region to make economic and political reforms, but said it was unclear how far and how quickly the administration was willing to go in lifting trade barriers that hurt the Middle East.