- The Washington Times - Monday, April 2, 2001

Jordan's King Abdullah will arrive in Washington tomorrow for a meeting with President Bush to find that his country is entangled in the domestic American politics of globalization.

Normally, major foreign policy priorities like the Middle East peace process and Iraq dominate the agenda when the Jordanian king visits the United States.

This time, the king will meet with Mr. Bush, U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick and dozens of members of Congress to deliver an urgent plea: Approve a free-trade agreement between the United States and Jordan.

"It has economic, political and security aspects," said the visibly frustrated Jordanian ambassador, Marwan Muasher. "It is not a pure trade agreement."

Hit hard by U.N. sanctions against Iraq, once a major trading partner, the young king has staked his reputation on being able to boost commerce with the United States, observers say.

By contrast, the commercial value of the pact to the United States is minimal, covering $276 million in yearly two-way trade "less than a drop in the bucket" of the American economy, Mr. Muasher said. But it also contains some partisan political dynamite.

The Clinton administration, which negotiated the pact last year, shoehorned rules on labor and environmental standards long opposed by Republicans into the agreement at the behest of unions and environmental groups. Jordan, eager to strike a deal, readily agreed.

The provisions call for unspecified penalties if either country fails to enforce its labor or environmental standards, rules negotiators conceded at the time were vague. Most observers believe the Clinton administration was trying to foist a precedent-setting agreement on Republicans by including the rules in a pact with a key U.S. ally.

Michael Smith, a former top trade official in the Reagan administration, described the provisions as "largely fluff, open to widely differing interpretations."

Mr. Zoellick has been reluctant to send the agreement to Congress for ratification and has suggested a "memorandum of understanding" or even a renegotiation to clarify the rules, according to informed sources.

Both sides hope to reach agreement during the king's visit on the best way get the trade pact approved.

But Mr. Zoellick's evident desire to tweak the pact before seeking congressional approval has drawn the ire of Democrats. They see a chance to embarrass the president by highlighting his unwillingness to help out a key player in the Middle East peace process by seeking quick passage of the pact.

"I haven't been given any good reason for reopening the agreement," said Rep. Sander M. Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat for trade issues in the House.

Republicans retort that Mr. Zoellick is doing as the previous Democratic president did. The Clinton administration added two "side agreements" on labor and environmental issues to the North American Free Trade Agreement, which former President George Bush negotiated, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, California Republican, pointed out.

"The Democrats are now screaming that this is totally inappropriate and that you ought not to make any changes at all," Mr. Thomas said. "How ironic, or how short the memory, or how hypocritical."

But Democrats have some leverage. Because some Republicans are sure to oppose free-trade legislation, the Bush administration will need a good chunk of Democratic votes to pass legislation later this year that would give the president the power to negotiate a major free-trade pact with Latin America.

Still, Mr. Levin has avoided drawing a line in the sand. He and other Democrats have been careful not to say they will oppose the Jordan deal if the Bush administration makes any changes to it.

Business interests also have chimed in on the debate. They want Democrats and Republicans to cooperate on trade bills this year but see no point in a showdown over an agreement that is, for them, commercially insignificant.

"Why should we spend months in a jihad over the Jordan agreement?" asked Christopher Padilla, a trade lobbyist for Eastman Kodak.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide