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Unruly Democrats Threaten NAFTA--and Clinton : Trade: A self-serving 'no' vote would be a long-term strategic disaster for the U.S.

March 21, 1993|MORTON M. KONDRACKE | Morton M. Kondracke publishes Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newsletter.

The North American Free Trade Agreement is in trouble on Capitol Hill, but before members of the House talk themselves into voting it down, they should be aware: NAFTA's defeat would be a political debacle for the Democratic Party, a job-loser for American workers and a strategic disaster for the United States.

To defeat NAFTA, the Democratic Congress would have to repudiate President Clinton on one of his key visions for the future--that of America leading the post-Cold War world on the free-trade route toward peace and prosperity.

Clinton has promised to improve upon the draft negotiated by President Bush with side agreements on labor standards and the environment. If he bargains and Congress rejects his work, the result will be a statement of no confidence on a major foreign and economic policy issue.

It will also mean that Democrats in Congress remain fundamentally beholden to special-interest constituencies--labor unions, environmentalists and certain industrial lobbies--even ahead of their loyalty to their President.

If NAFTA is defeated, we should not expect Mexico to regard us as an ally. And if the Mexican economy collapses, we may be talking about fortifying our borders.

Conceivably, the strategic self-injury could be even worse. The United States stands on the threshold of making an epic move in world history--the peaceful inclusion of ethnically different nations into an economic community.

If NAFTA works, Mexico will be but the first Latin member of a new Western Hemisphere-free trade area. It will be bigger than the European Community (or an Asian trade zone, if there ever is one), but it will also be different in that the EC is confined to Western Europeans, with Eastern Europeans and Turks excluded. Defeat of NAFTA will mean U.S. rejection of an economic/cultural alliance with its neighbors, just at a time when the end of the Cold War may have set loose what Harvard political scientist Sam Huntington calls "a war of civilizations" pitting militant Islam against the West.

And, finally, NAFTA's defeat would be a crushing setback to the cause of free trade everywhere. If we can't sign a NAFTA with Canada and Mexico, it's almost certain that we can't conclude a new GATT agreement with 160 other nations.

Last week, Democrats told aides to President Clinton that NAFTA faces defeat in Congress. If Democrats don't want to be responsible for one of the biggest mistakes in recent American history, they had better form a pro-NAFTA caucus and begin working on their colleagues.

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