The Fast Track Trade Jihad

Greg Palast

Inside Corporate America
by Greg Palast

After the attack on the World Trade Center, some enterprising hucksters here in New York tried to sell little bags of ashes to victims’ families, supposedly of their missing kin.

The stomach-churning commercialization of mass murder didn’t bottom out there. Barely had the towers hit the ground when U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick proclaimed the way to defeat Osama bin Laden was to grant George W. Bush extraordinary ‘fast-track’ trade treaty negotiating authority. Ambassador bin Zoellick, speaking from what looked like a cave on Capitol Hill, surrounded by unidentified Republicans, said Americans had to choose: stand up for free trade or for terrorism.

You’d think Democrats would blast Zoellick for this crude, heartless and somewhat oddball maneuver to jam through Bush’s big business agenda while a nation mourned. But this week, war-spooked Democrats in Congress are expected to vote to revive the moribund trade legislation. ‘Fast-track’ gives Bush carte blanche authority to bargain a big expansion of the World Trade Organization’s powers in anticipation of the WTO confab scheduled for Qatar in three weeks. ‘Fast-track’ also greases approval for a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

Announcement of the Bush push for the trade bill was followed by a disturbing CNN broadcast of corporate lobbyists dancing in the streets and handing out sweets to children.

The implied evil link between opponents al-Queda and opponents of the WTO came to the US Trade Ambassador, he said, from New Republic Magazine. “Terrorists hate the ideas America has championed around the world,” he said, laying the groundwork for a new McCarthyism aimed at anti-globalization dissidents. “It is inevitable that people will wonder if there are intellectual connections with others who have turned to violence to attack international finance, globalization and the United States.”

Exactly what are the particulars of the US trade agenda for the WTO that are supposed to make terrorists shake with fear? There are two holy grails in Zoellick’s trade crusade which go by the benign names, “national treatment in services” and “investor-to-state dispute resolution.”

Investor-to-state dispute resolution has already been deployed in the NAFTA zone. (NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, is where US industry uses Canada and Mexico for target practice to test trade weapons they will take international through WTO.)

Investor-to-state dispute resolution allows a foreign corporation wronged by violations of a trade pact to receive compensation from the miscreant nation’s treasury. It all sounds quite fair. In practice under NAFTA, corporations have used the system to demolish local governments’ environmental and consumer protections. In 1997, a state government in Mexico attempted to stop American operator Metalclad Corp building a toxic waste dump in an ecological preservation zone. A NAFTA disputes panel ordered Mexico to pay $15.6 million (£10.4 million) to Metalclad for delay of its polluting plan.

The most dangerous case comes before a NAFTA panel this week. Loewen Corp, a big Canadian funeral home chain, is deeply unhappy about American tort law. In 1996, a Mississippi jury ruled that Loewen breached a contract and bullied a small operator as part of a schme to monopolize the industry and raise prices. Rather than appeal the verdict to a higher court, Loewen settled for $150 million – then whipped around and demanded the US government refund the sum and then some — $725 million.

In LOEWEN V. MISSISSIPPI JURY, the Canadian operator demands that a NAFTA panel overturn basic procedures of the US civil justice system as an illegal barrier to trade. While the case is pending on the facts, the disputes panel has accepted jurisdiction. That ruling in effect makes NAFTA, not the US Supreme Court nor our Constitution, the ultimate legal authority of North America. Small wonder that American and European business chiefs are chanting “Disputes Resolution is Great!” outside the walls of Doha, Qatar, as the WTO prepares for the ministerial meeting.

The other codicil sought by fast-track globalizers, ‘national treatment,’ is a sword that Bush or Blair or any potentate hostile to state-owned enterprises can use in their jihad to privatise their own governments’ agencies. Want to keep the Royal Post – pardon me, Consignia – in government hands, or air traffic control? Not a chance, says John Howard of the US Chamber of Commerce. As Howard explained it to me, a WTO ‘national treatment’ clause will take that decision out of the hands of pesky parliaments, requiring government agencies to bid against foreign operators.

Under ‘national treatment’ rules as proposed, US corporations could challenge public ownership of the London Underground. Weirdly, it would fall to Blair’s trade ministry to defend against privatisation of the Tube. Before the WTO’s disputes panels, no resident of London, nor it’s mayor, will be permitted to make their case for public ownership – nor even listen in on the sealed, secretive hearings of the panel.

If Ambassador Zoellick’s statements on terror and trade sound a bit over the top, he is only reflecting the Bush Administration’s sense of panic over the World Trade Organisation’s Qatar confab which, even before September 11, was heading toward collapse and cancellation. WTO President Michael Moore failed to stampede less developed countries into putting a new round of comprehensive trade talks on the Qatar agenda.

Add to that the US President’s lack of authority to negotiate, and who would bother to fly to the Gulf state, especially now? Hence, Zoellick’s whipping skeptical Democrats about the head and shoulders with the Stars and Stripes.

The Trade Representative had a second target in his trade-or-terrorism tirade: the alliance of greens, populists and unionists who beat back prior attempts at ‘fast track’ legislation even when Congress was in Republican hands. Zoellick hopes to discredit this effective coalition by wrapping the anti-globalization movement in bin Laden’s turban.

Lamentably, Zoellick is getting a lot of help on his smear campaign from befuddled souls within the anti-globalization movement itself. Bush’s trade chief quotes gleefully from an Earth Island Journal writer who took the ill line that the attack on the Trade Center was some kind of extension, if misguided and criminal, of the struggle against globalization.

Bin Laden, born with a silver Rolls in his mouth and a stock portfolio to rival any Rockefeller, hardly qualifies as a class warrior. Nevertheless, Earth Island Journal’s opportunistic hijacking of the mass murder to promote its agenda is not exceptional. There’s a horrific weirdness in hearing both Zoellick and an unforgivable number of European Leftists (friends who should know better) calling the twin towers symbols of American capitalism.

Excuse me, but until I began scribbling for The Observer, I worked on Floor 50 of the North Tower – which stood, among New Yorkers, as a symbol of American socialism. These government-owned skyscrapers housed the Port Authority, proprietor of subways, bridges and more, America’s first line of defense against the privatization crusade sweeping the rest of the planet.

It is eery, anguishing and vile to watch Bush’s free-market fanatics join together with a self-absorbed element of the left to use this tragedy to sell us their phoney little bags of political ashes.

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Gregory.palast@observer.co.uk

Special thanks to Mary Bottari of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch for expert explanation and nonpareil research material.

At http://www.GregPalast.com you can read and subscribe to Greg Palast’s Observer column, Inside Corporate America, and view his BBC television Newsnight broadcasts.