The Cable

Former Defense Chiefs Call for Asian Trade Deal Obama Isn’t Likely to Get

Support from eight former DOD chiefs isn't likely to swap Congress on TPP.

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Eight former Defense Department secretaries want Congress to take up the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive trade deal with 12 Pacific Rim nations covering 40 percent of global GDP. It’s not likely to happen any time soon.

Former U.S. Defense Secretaries Harold Brown (1977-1981), Frank C. Carlucci (1987-1989), William J. Perry (1994-1997), William S. Cohen (1997-2001), Donald H. Rumsfeld (1975-1977, 2001-2006), Robert M. Gates (2006-2011), Leon E. Panetta (2011-2013), and Charles T. Hagel (2013-2015) all signed a letter released Thursday, to House and Senate leadership, calling on them to “support the TPP and to help the United States maintain its leadership in the 21st Century.”

They said bailing on the deal, negotiated in secret for years but made public in 2015, would allow China to write trade rules throughout the region. Beijing isn’t a signatory to the tentative agreement.

Dated Wednesday, the letter was sent to House Speaker Paul Ryan and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic Leader Harry Reid. Already, President Barack Obama has demanded the lawmakers to take up the TPP, which would be a cornerstone of his president’s economic legacy — if it is approved.

In an interview with the New York Times published Thursday, Obama said the TPP is needed to help the United States shape “the rules in ways that allow for higher labor standards overseas, or try to export our environmental standards overseas, so that we have more of a level playing field.”

The problem, for both the president and the past Pentagon chiefs, is that the trade plan doesn’t have enough support to pass either the House or the Senate, and congressional leaders aren’t pushing to get it. Here’s what each lawmaker addressed has said about TPP.

Ryan, in February: “I’m the speaker of the House. I’m not the dictator of the House. I’m not the micromanager of the House, and I don’t see where these votes are right now, and I’m just being honest with people about that, and I don’t know if and when that’s going to change.”

Pelosi, in June 2015, as she fought — and failed — to deny Obama fast-track authority to help him speed the trade deal through Congress: “We have an opportunity to slow down. Whatever the deal is with other countries, we want a better deal for America’s workers.”

McConnell, who once supported the TPP, said in February he now has “some problems” with it and said the deal should not be considered until after the presidential election. He also has expressed reservations about tobacco restrictions the TPP contains; tobacco is a lucrative crop in his home state of Kentucky.

Reid, in January: “Everyone knows how I feel about this…The White House knows. Everyone would be well-advised to not push this right now.”

Both Obama and former DOD chiefs want this deal to get done. But it’s increasingly likely that if TPP becomes law, that will happen after the president leaves the Oval Office. And even then, its chances aren’t great: Both Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton have come out against TPP.

Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/Getty Images

David Francis was a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covered international finance. @davidcfrancis

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