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Jewish World Review Dec. 14, 1999 /5 Teves, 5760

Morton Kondracke

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Riots raise free trade as 2000 issue -- THE WORLD TRADE ORGANIZATION riots in Seattle damaged the cause of free trade in Congress and the country, and made it more likely to be an issue in the 2000 campaign.

The motley anti-globalist claque that runs from Ralph Nader on the left to Pat Buchanan on the right has been emboldened by the double trouble in Seattle -- the collapse of world trade talks and the disorder in the streets.

The coalition argues inconsistently that the WTO is a too-powerful world government-in-the-making that overturns U.S. laws and poses a danger to U.S. sovereignty -- and at the same time isn't strong enough to impose U.S.-style labor, environmental, human rights and trading standards on other nations, such as China.

No matter, the WTO took a battering in Seattle and, next, it will be under challenge in Congress, with the public more confused than ever about free trade -- partly thanks to a formerly stalwart President Clinton waffling on the issue.

While mildly condemning violence in Seattle, Clinton sympathized with anti-WTO demonstrators, said the WTO had to invite them in to listen to their concerns and said the United States might impose trade "sanctions" for labor rights violations.

When WTO negotiators failed to reach agreement on terms for a new round of world trade talks, Clinton pulled the United States out of the discussions, triggering their collapse. Now labor unions and environmentalists -- often at odds on growth issues -- have been inspired to put pressure on Democrats in Congress to block new trade agreements or demand provisions that may poison negotiations.

On the Republican side, ultra-nationalists and the anti-China lobby are marginally stronger, but more important is the growing suspicion that Clinton isn't reliable as a free trader.

It's still likely that Congress will approve permanent normal trade relations for China so it can join the WTO, but the effort will require an all-out campaign by business groups and the White House. There will probably be a bigger fight than anyone expected on the vote to renew U.S. membership in the WTO. And fast-track negotiating authority for the president may not even come up again next year. Meantime, trade could emerge as more of a contentious issue in the presidential race, with Vice President Al Gore moving to appease the unions and environmentalists and Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) preaching a pure free-trade gospel.

Gore argues that labor and environmental safeguards ought to be included as enforceable items in the body of any future trade agreements -- not as side agreements -- a stance that may make it more difficult to reach agreement with foreign nations and to win GOP support in Congress.

Bush contends that countries will raise their own labor and environmental standards as they get richer as a natural consequence of free trade.

Bush aides say that if he'd been asked about the Seattle events during Monday night's GOP debate in Arizona, he would have criticized Clinton for making the WTO meeting such a high-profile affair without pre-negotiating a successful result.

Also, the aides said, he would have accused Clinton of being "either cynical or dumb" for "undermining the possibility of an agreement" by offending developing nations with a threat of trade "sanctions" over labor conditions.

White House aides say Clinton was speaking merely "in an aspirational way" when he used the word "sanctions," but developing nations heard it as a threat to punish them for not living up to U.S. standards on working conditions and child labor.

One Bush foreign policy adviser, former State Department official Robert Zoellick, said, "I don't believe Clinton was speaking off the top of his head. I believe he was playing to John Sweeney," president of the AFL-CIO.

"He had thrown a bone to the business community," Zoellick said, referring to Clinton's agreement on admitting China into WTO. "Now this was his bone to labor.

"My question is, at what point can we expect this guy to act like a president instead of somebody running for office? This was mere pandering to labor and the greens to help Al Gore."

Clinton defenders, including pro-trade New Democrats, say that his campaign for "globalism with a human face" is designed as a "third way" policy between the protectionism of labor and the laissez faire advocated by Bush and other free traders.

His idea, they say, is to reform the WTO and to start it talking about issues such as labor rights and environmental protection without allowing those considerations to block trade.

But Zoellick said, "The danger is this: Clinton's spinners say about Seattle that `no agreement is better than a bad agreement.' But a bad agreement is likely to be defined in Congress and the media as any agreement that doesn't have labor and environment in it.

"The developing world will see that as a threat to its ability to progress and won't go along. And Republicans in Congress know the provisions will be used for protectionism."

"I'd say we've just lost bipartisanism on trade," Zoellick said. That's indeed a danger -- unless Clinton moves quickly to repair the damage he's helped cause.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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