For Bush, hurdles ahead to build new trade

r Summit of the Americas allowed Bush to launch first major foreign-policy initiative.

After three days of talks in the summerlike air of Quebec City, President Bush has given an important symbolic push to his gauzy vision of helping to expand free trade from Argentina to the Arctic.

But actually putting in place such a hemispheric trade bloc, the president himself acknowledged over the weekend, will be "a tall order."

Tear-gassed protesters are actually the least of Mr. Bush's challenges, although they grabbed the biggest headlines and made for tense television footage.

Far greater obstacles include a skeptical Congress, significant disagreements between the US and Brazil over trade barriers on agricultural goods, and a history of unsuccessful attempts to join the wildly disparate North and South Continents in a trading club made up of democracies.

The Summit of the Americas, which marked the president's debut among international leaders, also gave Bush an occasion to launch his first major foreign-policy intiative: unifying the Western hemisphere via trade. Other presidents have shared this goal, but observers inside and outside the White House say Bush is going after it with a determination and focus unmatched by his recent predecessors.

"This guy wants to be seen as somebody who delivers," says Thomas Henriksen, a foreign-policy expert at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

Remember that hemispheric unity was a Bush campaign promise, and certainly one that could help him win Hispanic votes, says Mr. Henriksen. "This is a very coherent, thought-through, methodical agenda issue."

The trading club "vision," as Bush calls it, was first articulated by his father, who nudged Washington in that general direction by initiating NAFTA, the free-trade agreement joining the US, Canada, and Mexico. Bill Clinton wrapped up that deal, and then went on to emphasize hemispheric free trade at two previous Americas summits.

Those summits didn't produce much, though, partly because other world issues, like warfare in the Balkans, were more pressing and partly because of the enormity of the task itself. Some observers also say Mr. Clinton never made the hemisphere as a whole a priority.

But times have changed, the White House believes.

First, the region itself is more solidly democratic. "Ten to 15 years ago, it would have been hard to imagine a gathering" of 34 democratic leaders such as the one that took place in Quebec City, says Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser. Ms. Rice says a major accomplishment of the Quebec City meeting is an agreement among the summiteers that only democracies can participate in future summits on free trade.

She and others also point to Bush's commitment. What was needed going into this summit, Ms. Rice says, was "momentum" to rebuild support for a free-trade hemisphere.

Specifically, the region's leaders were looking to Bush to commit to winning "fast-track" trading authority from Congress. Such authority allows the US president to negotiate deals with the assurance that lawmakers would either vote for or against them, and not bog them down, or even kill them, with amendments.

Clinton lost fast-track authority in 1997 and was unable to get Congress to renew it. But at Quebec, Bush gave the foreign leaders what they wanted: a game plan and a timetable.

"I'm committed to attaining trade promotion authority [fast-track] before the end of the year," Bush said.

The announcement encouraged many leaders, as well as other summit participants.

"What I'm hearing from people is that ... they're impressed with the statements by the administration of what they're going to do," says Thomas McNamara, president of the Council of the Americas and former US ambassador to Colombia.

Indeed, just as the administration has step-by-step worked toward its domestic priorities, it seems to be taking the same approach with this goal. Mr. Zoellick has been quietly working back channels on Capitol Hill, while the president, in preparation for the summit, met with seven of the region's leaders.

Now that Bush appears to have rejuvenated the hemispheric trade process, the focus is on what he will do next.

"It must maintain momentum," says Thomas "Mack" McLarty, who was President Clinton's special envoy for the Americas. Not only will the Bush administration have to doggedly push ahead with fast-track, but "labor and environment will have to be accommodated, and Brazil will have to be responded to."

Dealing with these concerns is a fine balancing act. If the administration pushes too hard for pro-labor and environmental provisions for a free-trade area, it worries it will lose support in the region. And if the administration gives in to Brazilian demands to lower specific tariffs and eliminate antidumping provisions, it will incur the wrath of certain US industries such as steel.

Bush acknowledged this weekend that he was ready to "listen [to] voices - to those inside this hall, and to those outside this hall who want to join us in constructive dialogue."

But is there a backup plan, if fast-track fails?

"I don't need to focus on a Plan B because I do believe we're going to get it," Mr. Zoellick said in an interview with the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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