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Current Bangladesh Time: 5:20:43 PM (Fri)

Bangladesh’s Consolation Prize Dead in the Water

Dr. Richard L. Benkin

Poor Bangladesh! Poor people of Bangladesh! You have been so poorly served by your representatives in Washington for so long now. When former Ambassador Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury arrived in Washington in 2005, one of the top items on his agenda was to secure a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States. I recall sitting in a meeting with Congressman Mark Kirk and Shamsher Chowdhury when he emphasized the priority of that goal. It seemed a simple matter back then. Bangladesh was and is a major exporter to the United State (although less so today than before). It is a poor country that the US would like to see prosper. And we had an administration in the White House that favored free trade over protectionism. Yet, Bangladesh’s “holy grail” of an FTA has not been achieved even until today. What is really tragic is that the FTA could have been Bangladesh’s for the taking, which would have meant more exports to the United States and more jobs and income for the people of Bangladesh.

You see, the United States has a long history of helping less developed nations, Bangladesh among them. At times, however, we Americans get rather stubborn about what we are asking the recipient nations to do in order to qualify. September 11, 2001 ushered in one of those periods, which in many ways has not abated. Shamsher Chowdhury and the nation’s other representatives knew that. One can still see their efforts to convince Americans that Bangladesh is a “moderate Muslim nation” and an ally in the “war on terror.” Bangladeshi leaders continued to deny that it had a problem of Islamic radicals and prosecuted journalists who wrote differently; up until a series or terrorist explosions made that impossible. Still, Bangladeshi officialdom continues the charade even now without realizing that Americans see every lame denial and false assertion as an insult to our intelligence and more proof that Bangladeshi words are worthless.

But the story gets even worse. Confounded by its failure to understand why it could not get Americans to believe their its claims, the embassy went out and hired a consulting firm that cost the people of Bangladesh hundreds of thousands of dollars while producing zero in the way of benefits for the cost. When it assured the embassy that it would secure an FTA in a matter of months, I warned it that the statement was absolutely ludicrous and only showed how little the Washington Group (which was the name of the consulting firm) knew about the US. But embassy officials ignored my advice, and the Washington Group continued to come up empty for the people of Bangladesh. To compound the malfeasance even further, however, the embassy continued to tell Dhaka that their efforts were paying off and, at any rate, there was no need even to consider a review of US concerns about Islamist influence in Bangladesh (for we Americans would prefer not to prop up any government that includes groups pledged to destroy us and our allies). It also assured Dhaka that the growing concern in Congress over Bangladesh’s false persecution of Weekly Blitz editor Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury was at most a passing concern and that they need not worry about it. In 2006, it assured the government that US Congressman Mark Kirk would be defeated in the upcoming election and that the upshot will be an end to Congressional support for Shoaib. Even after the US Congress passed a very strong resolution on Shoaib’s behalf by a 409-1 margin, the embassy continue to ill-advise Dhaka about what needed to be done to secure the trade benefits.

As a result, the FTA became an ever-distant dream and one that would never be realized as long as Dhaka refused to re-assess its open appeasement of US enemies in the Choudhury case and it support for radical Islamists in the country and government. But in February 2007, Republican Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon proposed a sort of consolation prize for several poverty-stricken nations that had not been able to secure an FTA with the United States; Bangladesh was one of them. Senate Bill 652 proposed to give those nations some tariff relief to help build free markets. But after its initial reading in Congress, the bill was sent to the Senate Finance Committee and no further action has been taken on it. The same questions about Bangladesh, in particular, began dogging the bill from day one. One of its co-sponsors, Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein of California reacted quite strongly, an aide telling our associate that “the Senator had no idea the effect that bill would have on our efforts in the Choudhury case.” At this point, there is almost zero chance of passing that bill. It needs several more co-sponsors before the committee will even consider it. Given the fact that only one Senator has become a co-sponsor since the original four, there is almost no chance of happening. Then the committee must hold hearings and send it to the full Senate; and only after the bill gets put on the calendar behind all the other pending legislation can it be debated and voted on in the Senate before being sent to President Bush who would have to sign it for it to become law. Under normal circumstances, that is a tall order given the little time left before this Congress adjourns and all un-passed legislation dies. The fact that this is a Presidential election year makes it even more remote that politicians will take time to focus on a bill with so many unpopular elements. And the fact that several members of the Finance Committee—including its chairman, the bill’s sponsor, and several co-sponsors—are facing re-election essentially dooms the bill at this point in time. Recently a new trade bill (another consolation prize with fewer benefits) has been proposed in Congress, but its movement is slow and every member of Congress is up for re-election. Moreover, even if it is passed, which is unlikely, Bangladesh would be excluded under various clauses regarding organized labor, human rights, and other provisions.

Recent events at the World Trade Organization talks complicate matters further. The talks broke up “indefinitely” over member disagreements, and several analysts noted that the break-up makes new trade agreements remote. Additionally, Democratic Presidential hopeful Barack Obama has made it clear that if he is elected, he will effectively place a moratorium on new FTAs. Without tariff relief, Bangladesh is at a decidedly disadvantage vis-à-vis garment exporters like giants India and China or Honduras and Guatemala, parties to the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States. With Wal-Mart already reducing imports from Bangladesh, the future is not encouraging without specific actions that still could salvage tariff relief.

The most tragic part of this is that it all could have been avoided and the people of Bangladesh could have been enjoying the benefits of tariff relief for several years already. But the embassy continued to feed Dhaka false information about US resolve in fighting terrorism and in defending a man who is now a hero in the US, Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury. To be sure, if Dhaka wakes up to the realities in Washington, an FTA or tariff relief is still possible (especially if John McCain captures the White House, which remains a distinct possibility). On the other hand, the make-pretend world of the Bangladesh embassy seems to continue despite its record of failure. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and the embassy were ecstatic because they were able to get “meetings” with members of Congress and others in June. Had they any concept of what it would take to get from that point to actual trade legislation, their elation would have been muted. They even admitted that Congress has quite a few matters on its plate that take precedence. Perhaps as a face-saving measure, the BGMEA called the meetings “a testament to the importance of the issue and the respect for Bangladesh.” There was nothing said about concrete steps that might overnight turn a history of failure into success. Let us remember that the BGMEA sent no less a celebrity than Nobel laureate Mohammed Yunis to push for Senate Bill 652 with absolutely no effect.

The questions facing us are: Will the embassy start carrying out one of its most important functions and tell Dhaka the truth about this critical situation? And will Dhaka have the resolve to act on that information to secure the ever more elusive FTA that would mean so much to the nation?