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Thomas L. Friedman: Bush policy is 'No Mullah Left Behind'

Of all the shortsighted policies of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, none has been worse than their opposition to energy conservation and a gasoline tax. If we had imposed a new gasoline tax after 9/11, demand would have been dampened and gas today would probably still be $2 a gallon. But instead of the extra dollar going to Saudi Arabia — where it ends up with mullahs who build madrasas that preach intolerance — that dollar would have gone to our own Treasury to pay down our own deficit and finance our own schools. In fact, the Bush energy policy should be called No Mullah Left Behind.

Our own No Child Left Behind program has not been fully financed because the tax revenue is not there. But thanks to the Bush-Cheney energy policy, No Mullah Left Behind has been fully financed and is now the gift that keeps on giving: terrorism.

Bush says we're in "a global war on terrorism." That's right. But that war is rooted in the Arab-Muslim world. That means there is no war on terrorism that doesn't involve helping this region onto a more promising path for its huge population of young people — too many of whom are unemployed or unemployable because their oil-rich regimes are resistant to change and their religious leaders are resisting modernity.

A former Kuwaiti information minister, Sad bin Tefla, wrote an article in a London Arabic daily, Al Sharq al Awsat, last Sept. 11 titled "We Are All Bin Laden." He asked why Muslim scholars and clerics had eagerly supported fatwas condemning Salman Rushdie to death after he wrote a novel deemed insulting to Islam, "The Satanic Verses," but to this day no Muslim cleric has issued a fatwa condemning Osama bin Laden for murdering nearly 3,000 innocent civilians, badly damaging Islam.

Building a decent Iraq is necessary to help reverse such trends, but it is not sufficient. We need a much more comprehensive approach, particularly if we fail in Iraq. The Bush team offers none. It has treated the Arab-Israel issue with benign neglect, failed to find any way to communicate with the Arab world and adopted an energy policy that is supporting the worst Arab oil regimes and the worst trends. Phil Verleger, one of the nation's top energy consultants and a longtime advocate of a gas tax, puts it succinctly: "U.S. energy policy today is in support of terrorism — not the war on terrorism."

We need to dramatically cut our consumption of oil and bring the price back down to $20 a barrel. Nothing would do more to stimulate reform in the Arab-Muslim world. Oil regimes do not have to modernize or govern well. They just buy off their people and their mullahs. Governments without oil have to reform to create jobs. People do not change when you tell them they should — they change when they tell themselves they must.

The Arab-Muslim world is in a must-change human development crisis, "but oil is like a narcotic that kills a lot of the pain for them and prevents real change," says David Rothkopf, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Where is all the innovation in the Arab world today? In the places with little or no oil: Bahrain is working on labor reform, just signed a free-trade agreement with the United States and held the first elections in the Arab gulf, allowing women to run and vote. Dubai has made itself into a regional service center. And Jordan has a free-trade agreement with the United States and is trying to transform itself into a knowledge economy. Who is paralyzed or rolling back reforms? Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran, all now awash in oil money.

When did Jordan begin privatizing and deregulating its economy and upgrading its education system? In 1989 — after oil prices had slumped and the Arab oil states cut off Jordan's subsidies. In 1999, before Jordan signed its U.S. free-trade accord, its exports to America totaled $13 million. This year, Jordan will export over $1 billion of goods to the U.S. In the wake of King Abdullah II's reforms, Jordan's economy is growing at an annual rate of over 7 percent, the government is installing computers and broadband Internet links in every school, and it will soon require anyone who wants to study Islamic law and become a mosque preacher to first get a B.A. in something else, so mosque leaders won't just come from those who can't do anything else. "We had to go through a crisis to accept the need for reform," says Jordan's planning minister, Bassem Awadallah.

We have the power right now to stimulate similar trends across the Arab world. It's the best way to fight a global war on terrorism. If only we had a president and vice president tough enough to fight this war.

New York Times News Service