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What the Middle East needs most

American schools have worked wonders for the region's elites. Now we must raise the standard of education for all.

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Torn by perennial conflicts, the Middle East has long been on the receiving end of great pessimism. But today, buoyed by cash from $100-plus a barrel oil prices and stirred by the region's tech-savvy and politically impatient young residents, it's also the subject of a spirit of possibility.

The big question is this: Is the kind of independent thinking that can breed peace and the gradual spread of democracy likely to grow?

Robin Wright, veteran newswoman and author, projects long-term optimism in her latest book, "Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East." She finds great hope in the young people, from Morocco eastward to Iran and the South Asian lands beyond, and their growing use of tools such as the Internet.

The young are impatient with their authoritarian, often dictatorial, or clerical regimes. They're also thoroughly disillusioned with American government policy that preaches peace and democracy, but often takes stands on issues, such as the core Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which they perceive as biased.

That's why it's so important for the next US administration, Republican or Democratic, to set an enlightened US Middle East policy. It should urgently seek to rectify such huge policy errors as President Bush's war of choice in Iraq, or earlier, indiscriminate cold-war-era support for militant and mercenary Muslim fundamentalists during the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan, simply because they were anti-Communist.

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