Led by Vice President Dick Cheney, the United States has committed the World Trade Organization and its 142 nations to meeting as scheduled next week in a place where most of them do not want to go in the current climate of concern over security--an isolated Arab emirate on the shores of the Persian Gulf.
According to sources in Geneva and Washington, Cheney telephoned the emir of Qatar last week and committed the U.S. and the WTO to meet in Qatar, long after virtually all other members--including President Bush's chief trade negotiator--had assumed the meeting would be shifted to Singapore because of security considerations. Because the U.S. is by far the most powerful WTO member, Cheney's view settled the matter.
The sources said the administration apparently decided to risk possible terrorist attacks rather than offend Qatar and other Arab nations it needs for the anti-terrorist coalition.
U.S. government security experts have warned that members of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network are active in Doha, the capital of Qatar, where the WTO ministerial talks will be held Nov. 9-13. U.S. delegates to the meeting will be issued gas masks and antibiotics, be restricted to their hotels and meeting halls, and be protected by a special contingent of U.S. Marines.
Even so, two-thirds of the U.S. delegation have decided not to go. So have delegates from other nations, although all 142 WTO member nations are expected to be represented, if only by small delegations.
Business leaders and senators who usually attend major trade meetings have scaled back plans, as have an increasing number of protesters who had hoped to lobby delegates against expanded world trade.
The meeting is designed to pave the way for a new round of trade talks and to freer trade.
The WTO first decided to hold the meeting in Qatar, a tiny, tightly run pensinula jutting into the Persian Gulf off Saudi Arabia, because it hoped to control globalization protesters who disrupted the last WTO ministerial meeting, in Seattle in late 1999.
Qatar default choice
After Seattle, Qatar was the only nation to offer to play host to the bi-annual ministerial meeting. By Middle East standards, the emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, runs a moderate regime with first-class conference facilities, security and communications. Even now, WTO officials say that Qatar's preparations for the meeting are much better than Seattle's two years ago.
But Qatar was chosen before Sept. 11 and the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan.
Although Qatar is at least 700 miles from Afghanistan and Pakistan, the suspected presence of bin Laden operatives made most nations nervous about going there. In addition, the emir's government has condemned the U.S. bombings as "unacceptable."
Singapore speaks up
Singapore, a small and tightly controlled nation, offered itself as a new venue for the meeting. Twenty nations met three weeks ago at a preparatory meeting, coincidentally in Singapore, and all raised fears about security in Qatar. The delegates left that meeting assuming the switch would be made, especially after Robert Zoellick, the chief U.S. trade negotiator, made clear in public statements that he favored Singapore.
The Qatar government, which had already spent $40 million in preparations and saw the issue as one of national pride, warned that any shift to Singapore would be "a measure against Muslim countries, especially at this juncture so rife with attempts to demonize Islam and link it to terrorism."
U.S. forces hand
The U.S. action left other delegations and the WTO no choice but to fall in line. WTO Director General Mike Moore said the meeting would be held there "unless something seismic or catastrophic occurs" and made plans to go there Monday or Tuesday to prepare the meeting.
Zoellick still plans to attend, as do Commerce Secretary Donald Evans and Agricultural Secretary Ann Veneman. But the U.S. delegation, originally 150 people, has been reduced to 50 members. Most dropped out, reportedly with Zoellick's blessing, because of terrorism fears.
Other delegations also are cutting back, WTO officials said, though Britain still plans to send four ministers and Japan three. Like the United States, other major nations' plan to supplement Qatar's security with troops of their own.
Before Sept. 11, Qatar and the WTO had limited the number of representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), both protesters and business people, to 650. Protesters who had massed thousands on the streets of Seattle complained that this was a crippling restriction. Now the number expected to come is fewer than 500.
Businesses back out
Almost all business representatives have backed out. So have senators who planned to attend--no small matter because trade negotiators know that senators who attend these meetings are likely to support trade deals when they come up for a vote.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times