WASHINGTON — Despite the election-year hurdles, the Bush administration is steaming ahead with its ambitious free-trade agenda. Officials have already indicated they intend to pursue talks with another half-dozen countries.

But some pundits and lobbyists —?including dedicated free traders — are starting to question the purpose of all these talks. Their concerns center around whether the administration is spreading itself too thin with so many trade deals in the hopper and whether these deals will offer anything commercially meaningful to U.S. businesses.

“I’m not an enthusiast of this agenda,” said Edward Gresser, director of the trade and global market project at the Progressive Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank. “As a whole, we are doing too many of these things without enough of a picture of where they want them to lead us.”

With talks in the World Trade Organization and negotiations toward the hemispheric Free Trade Area of the Americas making little progress, the administration late last year turned its attention toward smaller bilateral or regional trade deals. The Central American Free Trade Agreement is a prime example of this strategy. (See related story, page 28.)

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick in January launched negotiations with Bahrain and indicated he plans to begin free-trade talks with Panama, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Thailand.

The U.S. also is negotiating separate trade pacts with Australia, Morocco and five southern African countries.

Gresser noted a group of unconnected agreements could cause trade diversion. What is good for Bolivia, for example, might not be good for Paraguay and what is good for the Dominican Republic might not be good for Haiti.

“If there is no WTO agenda, then all of these things together have unexpected and sometimes perverse effects,” Gresser said, noting that many Muslim countries could get hurt if the U.S. continues to negotiate with Latin American or Far Eastern countries.

“Most of the big Muslim countries in the world, like Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan and Bangladesh, rely very heavily on exports of high tariff products like clothing, and none of them, with the exception of Morocco, are on the list of FTA partners,” Gresser said. “Most Muslim countries will be squashed in the middle when quotas on apparel and textiles are lifted, with their neighbors receiving duty-free privileges or economies of scale.”Erik Autor, vice president and international trade counsel at the National Retail Federation, which is traditionally a free-trade supporter, said he is also concerned about the administration’s agenda.

“It is a little disheartening out there when you look at the three big trade negotiations,” Autor said. “We have a host of free-trade agreements that we are questioning about any real commercial benefit in them.”

The administration does have its staunch supporters, on the Hill as well as in the private sector, including the NRF and many other wholesale and retail import associations.

The NRF, American Apparel & Footwear Association, U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles & Apparel and the Retail Industry Leaders Association (formerly known as the International Mass Retail Association) all supported CAFTA and trade pacts with Chile and Singapore, although the deals have fallen short of what they were seeking.

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