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U.S. Free-Trade Deals Include Few Muslim Countries

By Paul Blustein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 3, 2004; Page E01

The war on terrorism was high on the mind of U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick as he signed a free-trade agreement with the Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain in mid-September. "A contest for the soul of Islam" is raging, and "we can help" by striking trade deals that generate jobs and reduce poverty, Zoellick said.

But Bahrain, an island nation with a population of 678,000, is an exception in securing access to the giant U.S. market. Excluding oil, imports from Muslim countries have increased by just 3.2 percent since 2000, their growth suppressed by tariffs of 20 percent or more on key goods such as textiles, according to an analysis of U.S. trade statistics.

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Meanwhile, countries in the Andean region, sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere -- granted preferential, duty-free access to the U.S. market -- have enjoyed a comparative boom, with exports to the United States rising nearly 40 percent in some cases.

The figures reflect a bias in U.S. trade rules that work against strategic allies such as Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey. Under current rules, for example, T-shirts made in Lesotho or Peru or El Salvador come into the country duty-free, while shirts from Turkey or Pakistan are hit with a 20 percent tariff. Looking at trade statistics in light of the 2001 terrorist attacks, some analysts question whether U.S. trade policy is adequately backing the country's national security goals.

"It is hard to argue that the greater Muslim world is of less strategic interest to the U.S. than the Andean region or sub-Saharan Africa," said Brink Lindsey, vice president for research at the Cato Institute, a free-market-oriented think tank. "Our de facto discrimination against Muslim imports sends a terrible signal, and indicates we're just not putting our money where our mouth is, in terms of using every lever at our disposal to make this a safer world."

The Bush administration has hardly been stingy in providing financial assistance to its less-wealthy allies, particularly those in the forefront of confronting Muslim radicalism. Washington last year helped put together a $3 billion, five-year aid package for Pakistan, and engineered the recent deal among rich nations to forgive 80 percent of the $38 billion owed to them by Iraq.

But when it comes to trade, officials of some Muslim nations complain that the United States is failing to provide meaningful export opportunities because of protectionist pressure from U.S. industries.

"Having enhanced market access would be of enormous benefit to Pakistan," Humayun Akhtar Khan, Pakistan's commerce minister, said in an interview this fall. "The European Union has been much more forthcoming" than the United States in granting trade concessions over the past couple of years, he said. "We need help from our friends."

Khan estimated that every $1 billion in exports yields 200,000 jobs and supports 1 million Pakistanis. "Trade is a much more cost-effective way [than aid] to help a country," he said.

The United States has free-trade agreements with Jordan, Morocco and Bahrain, and has begun negotiations for similar deals with Oman and the United Arab Emirates -- smaller Arab countries whose industries would pose little threat to U.S. manufacturers.

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