By  on July 21, 2006

WASHINGTON — Susan Schwab has been a virtual commuter to Geneva during her six weeks as the Bush administration’s chief trade negotiator.

Schwab, who grew up in Africa, Asia and Europe, is at home abroad — and she needs to be.

As U.S. Trade Representative, the 51-year-old former university dean is now a player in international commerce and politics, thrust into deadlocked trade talks that have the potential to remove economic barriers and help alleviate poverty in some of the world’s poorest countries.

With a varied background in government, business and academia, Schwab is a policy wonk who has the intellectual heft and the personality to be the public face of the Bush administration’s trade agenda, colleagues and experts said. However, that agenda is largely set and its jewel — World Trade Organization negotiations in Geneva — has dimmed as deadline after deadline has been missed.

Schwab will meet again with her counterparts from the European Union, India, Brazil, Japan and Australia this Sunday and Monday and on July 28 and 29 to try and reach a framework agreement on how global tariffs on industrial and agricultural goods could be reduced. A deal would need to be approved by the WTO’s 149 member countries.

Launched in Doha, Qatar, in 2001, the Doha talks might cut tariffs on apparel and textiles, an outcome sought by retailers because it would lower prices, but opposed by domestic textile firms competing with low-cost imports. Many countries are afraid that freer trade in apparel and textiles would only strengthen China’s dominance.

The Bush game plan has been to pursue the Doha talks while signing smaller regional deals, such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement. In executing that plan, Schwab faces rising antitrade sentiment in Congress and the expiration of the presidential Trade Promotion Authority, which restricts Congress’ ability to amend trade bills.

“I suspect that Sue will be limited to closing up regional agreements or negotiating a limited WTO deal, which is something she says she won’t do, but if the President decides to do it, she’ll do it,” said former colleague Peter Morici, professor at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. “I have a lot of respect for her, but this is not an enviable position.”

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