McCain’s Weak Criticism of Obama and Clinton on NAFTA and Afghanistan

2 03 2008

On Friday, McCain went to Round Rock, Texas to raise some money and criticize both of the leading Democratic contenders for wanting to renegotiate the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement before a pro-business crowd. McCain exaggerated both Obama’s and Clinton’s positions in accusing them of wanting to unilaterally abrogate the trade agreement altogether.

But Obama and Clinton did not willy-nilly declare pulling out of NAFTA. Clinton during the debate on Tuesday night said:

It is not enough just to criticize NAFTA, which I have, and for some years now. I have put forth a very specific plan about what I would do. And it does include telling Canada and Mexico that we will opt out unless we renegotiate the core labor and environmental standards.

And Obama agreed and added that he would use the “hammer of a potential opt-out as leverage to ensure that we actually get labor and environmental standards that are enforced.”

While much of the press has focused on how it’s so hard to put the free trade genie back in the bottle and how the Democrats are oh so protectionist now, few are actually reporting on why the environmental standards is such an important issue. Pollution in Mexico has intensified under NAFTA to the point where some consider a pollution haven for transnational companies.

In 2005, then-Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin rebuked the United States for unilaterally pulling out of the Kyoto Treaty and ignoring the root causes of global warming. Surely, renegotiating NAFTA to improve environmental standards would not offend Canadians sensibilities. Somehow I doubt this criticism will ever be fully addressed in the context of the NAFTA debate.

But McCain made an even more specious argument on Friday too in emphasizing a somewhat tenuous link between the war in Afghanistan and NAFTA. He told those gathered in the town hall meeting at the Dell Computers headquarters that:

The Canadians are now supplying brave young Canadians to the fight in Afghanistan. One of our priorities is to try to get more cooperation from our allies throughout the world. All these things are interconnected.

I could not agree more that the all these issues are interconnected. But it’s for different reasons. Waning support for Afghanistan among our allies and Canada has less to do with trade per se and more to do with Iraq. Citizens of NATO countries, whether rightly or wrongly, increasingly see Iraq and Afghanistan as part of the same U.S.-led fumbled adventurism called the war on terror.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates even admitted as much on his eve of his trip to Europe

I worry that for many Europeans the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan are confused. Many of them, I think, have a problem with our involvement in Iraq, and project that to Afghanistan, and do not understand the very different — for them — the very different kind of threat.

Our NATO allies know that since the Bush administration has diverted its resources and attention to waging a failed war in Iraq, the U.S. has neglected Afghanistan. This in turn has contributed to an even greater deterioration of the security and development of Afghanistan. Six years after the invasion, opium production is up, the Taliban controls much of Southern Afghanistan, suicide bombers are on the rise, and police officers are undermanned and corrupted.

Consequently, there has been a growing backlash directed against the United States by both Canadians and the Europeans alike for fighting a losing war that they believe they have no real stake in. As the New York Times notes Canadians in particular have signaled their inclination to pull out soon.

Some of that pressure has come from Canada, whose 2,500 troops in Afghanistan have suffered heavy losses, including 78 deaths. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said he will withdraw his force on schedule next year unless NATO adds 1,000 troops.

His government said Wednesday that if NATO agreed to add the troops, it would introduce a motion in the Canadian Parliament to prolong the Canadian mission for one more year beyond February 2009.

If Europeans and Canadians see supporting the war effort in Afghanistan as proxy support for the American led adventure in Iraq, then it’s the policies advocated by John lets-stay-in-Iraq-for-another-hundred-years McCain who may do more to harm U.S.-Canadian or NATO relations. That said, perhaps McCain should wonder who is sending the wrong message to whom.

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