Why Clinton Must Stump for NAFTA

THERE is joy in Mudville. Casey's at the bat. President Clinton has finally taken the field for the North American Free Trade Agreement, promising to put his full weight behind efforts to gain congressional approval of the pact. And he can win - if he stays forcefully engaged over the coming months. But even if Congress ultimately rejects NAFTA, the United States and Mr. Clinton himself will be well served by a vigorous campaign for the agreement.

Throughout his race for the presidency, Clinton consistently supported NAFTA and its goal of eliminating trade barriers between the US, Mexico, and Canada. Yet, since Inauguration Day, his voice has scarcely been heard. NAFTA's critics have had the field largely to themselves. Facts notwithstanding, they have succeeded in portraying NAFTA as a massive threat to American jobs and wages, and in cowing many in Congress, where today a majority would vote against the pact. NAFTA's supporters have been on the defensive, lacking enthusiasm and direction.

Last week, however, Clinton came out swinging. His powerful endorsement of NAFTA left no doubt about his personal commitment. The president demonstrated an imposing grasp of what troubles the American people about NAFTA, and squarely addressed their concerns. Clinton must now sustain an energetic effort to recruit the necessary votes on Capitol Hill. This is one come-from-behind battle that Clinton should wage fiercely. A victory here would enhance his leadership at home and abroad; improve US economic prospects; set a precedent for sensible US trade policies; and pave the way for more productive political and economic relations with Mexico and other Latin American and Caribbean countries.

But, win or lose, NAFTA is worth fighting for - contrary to conventional wisdom that would advise the president to avoid risking political capital in a potentially losing battle.

THE NAFTA debate is an opportunity for Clinton to educate the American voter and Congress about issues crucial to the nation's future: international economic realities, the dangers of isolationism and protectionism, the importance of Latin America to US interests, and the role of the US in today's world. It also provides him with the right vehicle for setting the terms and stage for the debate over post-cold-war US foreign policy. If Clinton backs away from NAFTA, his arguments for free trade under a new GATT agreement will ring hollow. If he fails to put forth a strong case that a more stable and prosperous Mexico serves US interests, how credible will he be in advocating US involvement in distant countries? If he is unwilling directly to challenge the notion that the US cannot compete with Mexico, how can he do so convincingly in the case of Japan and Germany?

NAFTA's defeat would be a blow to US international leadership, but the damage will be far greater if the White House is seen as walking away from the pact. By sticking with NAFTA to the end, the administration has the opportunity to demonstrate that it is prepared to fight for its principles and keep to its promises, that it will not abandon its allies on other fronts.

Nowhere will this be more vital than in our own hemisphere. Throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, NAFTA is viewed as the first milepost toward a Western Hemisphere free-trade association. NAFTA is the prospective cornerstone of closer, more cooperative US-Latin American relations, both political and economic. NAFTA's rejection would leave US policy in the region in disarray.

By actively campaigning for the agreement, however, the administration will retain its credibility to work with Mexico and other Latin American countries, individually and collectively. It will be able to reassure the region's governments that the struggle to keep US markets open will persist and credibly to encourage Latin Americans to stick to their own economic reforms.

The US will come out ahead if Clinton stays at the plate and swings for the fences on NAFTA. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.

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