Friday, September 30, 2011

Dumb Decisions -- On the Middle East

Decisions made by this Administration are getting weirder and weirder.

I’ve been reporting on international trade policy in Washington for some 30 years – and have heard a lot of things that were hard to fathom. But during the past two weeks I’ve heard – and reported – some very difficult things to believe about the Middle East.

Just yesterday, Assistant Secretary of State for the Asia and Pacific Kurt Campbell told a big meeting of the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council that the American people are demanding "some nation-building at home" – saying the Obama Administration will start to turn its attention domestically.

Mr. Campbell essentially said the Administration will respond to perceived public and budget-cutting demands to start withdrawing from the Middle East – including its economic programs. But, he quickly added, Washington will increase its attention to the Asia-Pacific region where nearly half world trade originates. He – and other State Department trade officials – spelled out a long list of initiatives in which the United States will be "pro-active."

Asked by WTD if his remarks stem from his portfolio since he doesn’t get paid for talking about the Middle East, Assistant Secretary Campbell suggested that might be a part of the reason for the remarks, but assured WTD that the decision to remove itself from the Middle East has been made.

The remarks came less than week after a line-up of high-level Middle East finance officials gathered in Washington for the annual meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund – several of whom were explicit about the United States paying more economic attention to their region in the aftermath of the social and political revolutions.

Two ministers contacted by WTD indicated that they just about pleaded with the United States to begin – or at least start talking about – possible free trade arrangements. Tunisia Finance Minister Jalloul Ayed explained the reason for the upheaval in his country. Tunisia led the string of revolutions – and the demise of old-time autocratic rulers in the region. Demonstrators shouted about democracy, but the reason for their disgruntlement was high unemployment and little hope for advancement by the large populations of young educated citizens without jobs.

Egyptian Deputy Prime Minister Hazem El-Beblawi – who spoke a few days earlier at the US Chamber of Commerce – said the same.

Economic activity – including trade – is needed now, both leaders said. Noting that his country has very little trade activity with any country now, Mr. Ayed said at least initial discussion of trade liberalization with the United States would go a long way toward at least bolstering the aspirations of his people – an essential element for political and social stability.

USTR has promised Tunis a re-look at its economic trade relations – including reactivation of its Trade and Investment Framework Agreement – in November.

But the credibility of the United States is at an all-time low among other nations – and about the only thing concrete that ministers and other economic officials could take back to their capitals was "hope" based on suspected empty rhetoric and false promises.

The latest remarks by Mr. Campbell seem to justify that criticism.

An essay in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs suggests that the biggest danger of further economic declines in the Arab states of the Middle East is the enticement of young intellectuals toward radicalism. They don’t support jihad, the article continued, but may see little else.

Any comments?

Jim Berger

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