Seattle sizzled on Monday and fizzled on Friday. The third ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization was expected by many to witness the launch of the WTO's first multilateral trade negotiation. But despite upbeat press briefings by U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky, who insisted that things would come together in the end, the representatives of 135 nations returned home declaring failure. What went wrong?

Serious and irreconcilable differences among the member countries on the conventional trade agenda may have derailed the talks. Or the administration may have unwittingly been guilty of gross mismanagement.

Then again, perhaps President Clinton wittingly sacrificed and scuttled the talks to pursue a short-run political agenda, this so-called "political failure" actually constituting a political triumph for him. I believe that the evidence points much too convincingly to the last hypothesis.

Differences on the trade agenda did kill the launch of an earlier negotiating round in 1982 in Geneva. But the European Union was adamant at the time in refusing to put agriculture and services on the bargaining table. No such deep divisions on narrowly defined yet broadly pertinent trade matters existed at Seattle.

The real problems lay elsewhere, in the city rather than the state of Washington. The administration had literally done nothing to prepare Seattle for the ruckus that erupted. Everyone knew for weeks that disruptive demonstrations were being planned and by whom. On Tuesday, when the formal negotiations were supposed to begin but were held up by mayhem, I saw groups of hooded demonstrators. I asked a young woman why they wore masks, to which she replied truthfully: "We are anarchists."

The riot started about an hour later. Where were the plainclothesmen who could have asked what I did--even if they had not read Bakunin, I assume that they would have heard of anarchists--and done what was necessary to cut off the riot at its inception? Why was Seattle left to its own home-grown devices when Washington should have brought its federal expertise into the town?

But if the violent demonstrators were kept out of mind, the administration had done nothing either to engage the peaceful demonstrators from nongovernmental organizations in reasoned dialogue. Attempts to assuage their misguided concerns about globalization, free trade and the WTO should have been made long before Seattle. Recall that the turning point in the equally supercharged NAFTA debate came when Al Gore demolished Ross Perot's ill-informed assertions concerning the perils of NAFTA in a famous television debate.

This time, however, Clinton joined in the anti-globalization frenzy, endlessly repeating the witless sound bite that "globalization needs a human face," implying as its flip side that it lacks one. The great communicator was on the wrong side. Indeed, the overwhelming scholarly evidence on the effects of freer trade and direct foreign investment is favorable, if only he would look at it.

Evidently, Clinton could not alienate his labor constituency in this election season. Indeed, he was unwilling to lend his efforts to launching a round at Seattle until a few months ago.

Then came the U.S.-China accord, cynically timed just two weeks before Seattle. If there is any country that arouses ire among the anti-globalization groups, it is China. So Clinton was waving the red flag--pun intended--before the raging NGO bulls, making Seattle's success ever more problematic. Why wasn't the accord with China announced after Seattle instead?

Finally, just as the poor countries were properly objecting to the setting up of a Working Party on "labor rights"--defined in a cynically protectionist fashion so as to target the poor countries exclusively--and were seeking to shift the question to an appropriate agency such as the International Labor Organization, Clinton arrived and said that he wanted trade sanctions against the poor countries on the issue. That blew it.

So, Clinton emerges having won the minds and cash of the business community with his China deal, and having won the hearts and cash of the unions with his destructive grandstanding at Seattle on labor rights. Not bad for the Democratic Party. The WTO and freer trade are another matter.

The writer, Arthur Lehman professor of economics at Columbia University, was the economic policy adviser to the director general of GATT from 1991 to 1993.