LAS VEGAS. — Las Vegas.
As the public dialogue moves toward ''rebuilding the Gulf,'' consider the tales of two deserts.
One desert contains the most valuable of treasures. The other holds few resources. One succeeds. The other fails, famously.
The successful desert is the American Southwest, the most rapidly growing part of America. Nevada, which grew by 50 percent from 1980-90, is the fastest growing state. Las Vegas grew by 60 percent.
What makes the American desert so livable that so many more people want to live there?
Water, surely. When it's not God-given, it can be made by technology and politics. Las Vegas gets much of its water from federal projects that were pets of generations of potent Nevada legislators.
Air conditioning, a revolutionary machine. Cool air in the home, office and car allows life to proceed, even in the broiling desert.
Proximity, or its equivalent. Seventeen airlines serve Las Vegas. Interstate 15 cuts the driving time from Los Angeles from interminable to five hours. A planned maglev ''bullet train'' will take overland travel time down to about an hour and a half.
Access to wealth. As people became more prosperous, tourists came (about 20 million now visit Vegas annually).
But why do they come? The Nevada Legislature legalized gambling, creating an ''artificial'' industry. When there is gambling, gamblers follow. ''The Strip'' was built, with huge and garish hotels.
Hotel management and performing arts are taught at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where they also have a super-computer and play basketball. The military, nuclear power, and related high-tech activities play a role.
Other Southwestern states do it without gambling. Arizona grew by 35 percent; Utah, 18 percent; New Mexico; 17 percent. California is another desert state.
The other desert is in the Middle East. There, the volcano is real. It is being said that history has dealt the Arabs a bad hand.
Yet that desert has oil. In the 1970s it was said that petro-plutocrats would capture all the money.
But the desert of the Mideast did not bloom. The oil kingdoms impaled themselves.
Astronomical sums were spent on armaments. Corruption and profligacy took a toll. Terrorists were paid off. The world's largest fortune was squandered.
The role of wealth, still important, will have to be downgraded. Kuwait had wealth. Peace and stability is in first place.
Political freedom is a resource. Free peoples don't destroy themselves. It's also an economic resource; democracy yields real politics, which can direct wealth toward productive use.
Economic freedom is a resource. Markets are more important than minerals. Markets spur the imagination, which allows people to create wealth, not just use it up.
The American Southwest had freedom and flourished. The Arab desert had money and no freedom. Now they need freedom, not money.
Ben Wattenberg is author of ''The First Universal Nation''.