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Ding-dong, is Doha dead? Or just on life support?

If you follow the posturing, badgering, and multinational sniping that surrounds the ongoing Doha Round of world trade talks (and could anything possibly be more brain-numbing?), you know the latest bit of fodder for the news mills is that the whole shootin' match just might collapse. Probably not, but all the speculation keeps the pot stirred.

While many of the parties involved have been optimistically saying that Doha Round issues — of which agriculture has been one of the most contentious — can be resolved by the end of this year, Rep. Bill Thomas, the California Republican who is chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and President Bush's right-hand man on liberalization of trade, has said in recent speeches that the best thing might be to just write Doha's obituary.

That's because, he says, the United States and the European Union are locked in a struggle of “irreconcilable differences” on trade issues, and “sometimes the best thing you can do (in such a situation) is just to part ways and walk away.”

Rather than continuing to invest efforts in the WTO talks, says Thomas, who has announced his retirement from Congress this year, the United States should stop trying to patch things up with the EU and instead concentrate on bilateral free trade agreements with South Korea and other potential partner nations.

While Thomas says “we obviously don't want to walk away” from the WTO talks, he feels the United States can make better use of its trade negotiating skills by striking more deals such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). These are easier to get done, he says, and offer more immediate benefits to the United States.

Cognizant of a rising tide of voter sentiment toward restricting immigration and foreign investment in U.S. infrastructure, and an increasing push for a more protectionist stance on trade, Thomas and others see those issues as stumbling blocks for Republicans in this year's congressional elections.

Right now, he says, it looks as if the anti-trade forces “have a better chance of winning,” which could bring on “national, hemispheric, and global disruptions (that could be) around for years.”

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, allowing as how Thomas may well be right in his assessment of the futility of the Doha Round, says the United States nonetheless needs to stay in the game “because that's where the biggest potential gains are.”

Pascal Lamy, who heads the WTO, has said in recent speeches that a successful conclusion to the world trade talks hinges on the United States and the European Union agreeing to slash their farm subsidies and rebalance rules to favor developing nations.

Problem is that while the United States has been doing just that, with agriculture spending now amounting to less than 1 percent of the federal budget, EU agriculture subsidies continue to represent about 40 percent of its entire budget, with the lion's share of that going to France, which of course doesn't want to give up anything.

July 31 is characterized by those in the know as the “final irrevocable” deadline to salvage Doha. Stay tuned…


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