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Bush’s Trade Chief Rated as Smart, Smooth Negotiator

by Jonathan Peterson
LA Times

In naming Robert B. Zoellick to be his chief trade advisor, President-elect George W. Bush on Thursday hired a former employee of his father who is known for combining brainy analysis with smooth negotiating skills.

Bush also made clear that the job of U.S. trade representative–contrary to earlier reports–would not be downgraded and would remain at the senior level of his administration, which will inherit an array of unfinished trade issues involving Europe, Latin America and Asia.

At the same time, some of the most incendiary trade disputes await Zoellick at home: Republicans and Democrats remain deeply divided over whether trade accords should contain labor and environmental standards, an issue that could flare up this year.

The cerebral, bespectacled Zoellick, 47, known for his free-trade views, brings to his new job unusual mental intensity and years of experience in the overlapping worlds of trade, economics and foreign policy.

“He is an intensely smart fellow and he knows trade very, very well,” said Franklin J. Vargo, a vice president at the National Assn. of Manufacturers. “He’s an excellent choice. We’re ecstatic.”

Zoellick also served as counselor to the Treasury secretary during the Ronald Reagan administration, in addition to other posts. He is a protege of James A. Baker III, the longtime Republican official. Both traveled to Florida to help George W. Bush during the recent ballot recount controversy.

At the State Department, he worked on issues related to German reunification and represented the president at meetings of the world’s seven wealthiest nations.

The decision on U.S. trade representative became clouded in recent days by debate inside the Bush transition team over whether the job should be downgraded to sub-Cabinet rank. The move would have fit with the president-elect’s desire to supervise a relatively small team of top officials while also enhancing the role of Commerce Secretary-designate Don Evans, a Bush confidant who would be the only Cabinet voice on trade issues.

But the idea sparked a chorus of complaints from Congress, where members warned that it would weaken the trade representative’s stature with other nations and undermine America’s ability to complete trade accords.

Members of Congress expressed relief Thursday at Bush’s decision to leave the trade post inside the Cabinet. Zoellick, whose appointment will require confirmation by the Senate, “is a free trader with a great grasp of the issues, and I appreciate the fact that his perspective will be at the Cabinet table,” declared Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas), chairman of the House Rules Committee.

A table full of issues awaits him. Zoellick, who grew up near Chicago and graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, will deal with long-running tiffs between the United States and Europe over European barriers on the import of bananas and hormone-fed beef. U.S. officials also contend that an Airbus super-jumbo jet project is benefiting from government subsidies that are prohibited under global trade rules.

More broadly, the Bush White House would like to complete a Western Hemisphere free-trade agreement, a task that, as a practical matter, would require Congress to broaden the presidency’s authority to complete trade deals that are immune from congressional tinkering.

Such a request, however, is certain to ignite the issue of whether labor standards and environmental protections should be part of trade deals, an approach that Bush generally opposes but that has wide support among Democrats.

On Thursday, Zoellick avoided the touchy matter, while conceding that “change isn’t easy” and promising to listen to the concerns of labor and work “very closely with Congress, both sides of the aisle, from day one.”

Zoellick, a recreational runner, is married and has no children.

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