Baghdad. Beirut. Doha.

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Baghdad. Beirut. Doha: Trade Talks Failure a Blow to US Strategy in Mideast

by Leon Hadar by Leon Hadar

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In addition to being the capitals of three Middle Eastern countries, Baghdad (Iraq), Beirut (Lebanon) and Doha (Qatar) have something else in common, and its U.S. President George W. Bush’s global policy. While the violence taking place in Baghdad and Beirut is a direct consequence of the collapse of Bush’s Middle East policy and much of its geo-strategic approach, the breakdown of the Doha round of trade talks is a reflection of the failure of the Bush Administration to project US leadership in the geo-economic arena. If Washington does not take immediate steps to reevaluate and re-energize its role in global affairs, then not only the United States but the entire international system could be threatened.

Clearly, the Doha Round was a way to link America’s strategy to promote its interests and values in the Middle East, the efforts to continue to liberalize global trade and the US-led war on terrorism. In fact, one of the reasons that the latest round of trade negotiations was launched in the capital of one of the most prosperous economies in the Middle East after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 was to demonstrate that contrary to al-Qaeda’s ideology, Islam and capitalism were compatible, and that an economy like that of Qatar, committed as it is to the principles of free trade, can thrive at the center of the Arab Middle East.

Moreover, the message coming out of the post-9/11 Doha meeting was that liberalizing global trade which creates the conditions for economic growth in the Third World could also be the most effective way to weaken the appeal of Islamic radicalism. It was al-Qaeda and its terrorist networks — and not the Middle East and the Muslim world — that were not compatible with free markets and economic prosperity.

It is in this context that we have to consider the collapse of the talks in Geneva aimed at reaching a global market-opening agreement under the auspices of the World Trade Organization. Yes, the breakdown in the talks had to do with the technical and somewhat esoteric problems involving farm subsidies and related trade policies and their intertwining with domestic politics. But against the backdrop of the mess in Iraq and Lebanon and the inability of the US and its allies to resolve the crises there, the decision to shelve the five-year-old talks to dismantle market barriers provided a very dramatic and even tragic soundtrack to the current depressing Middle Eastern movie.

Indeed, the original ambition of the Doha Round was to produce an agreement by the end of 2004 and boost trade by as much as US$800 billion, according to the World Bank. The bank has already scaled back its prediction of a trade accord’s value to as little as US$96 billion, and the current deadlock would threaten even this kind of modest gains. Estimates show that relatively open economies had a gross domestic product more than seven times higher, and grew at a rate more than eight times as fast, than the least open economies. Hence the stalemate in the Doha Round will only make it more certain that it would be impossible to lift out of poverty millions of people in the Middle East (and elsewhere), ensuring that the environment in that region would be conducive to promoting Osama bin Laden’s strategy of hatred and violence.

As most analysts agree, there is a lot of blame to go around in trying to figure out who was responsible for the collapse of the trade negotiations, including the refusal of India and Brazil to cut Customs duties in industrial goods and the resistance by the European Union to cut its protective tariffs on commodity tariffs. But the main obstacle to the agreement was the failure by political leaders in the major economies to stand up to their respective agricultural lobbies. From that perspective, the Bush administration has been certainly guilty of pandering to American farmers by dispensing to them huge subsidies.

But in the previous global trade rounds, US officials recognized that America’s willingness to open its markets to foreign imports was not really a form of concession but a necessary step to be taken by the driving force in the multilateral trading system to ensure that it remains open. After all, it is the American economy that ends up enjoying the highest benefits from global free trade. Unfortunately, the White House and Congress seem to be more inclined now to respond to protectionist pressure than to pursue the kind of trade policy that will benefit both the American and the global economy. And after the White House loses its fast-track trade negotiating authority next year, it will become even more difficult to push for trade liberalization in Washington.

There is no doubt that President George W Bush’s political weakness at home, resulting primarily from the growing costs of US policies in Iraq and the Middle East, made it challenging for him to win domestic support for adopting a more courageous stand in Geneva, which could have prevented the collapse of the talks.

But the irony is that this blow to the Doha Round and the new obstacles to the process of free trade will make it even more difficult to ignite economic growth in the Middle East. That could prove to be a setback to the effort to deal with the core political problems affecting Baghdad and Beirut, or for that matter, Gaza, Cairo and Amman.

Leon Hadar [send him mail] is Washington correspondent for the Business Times of Singapore and the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). Visit his blog.

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