POLITICS

U.S. embassies become trade missions for Boeing

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"Protectionism" is still a curse word for both political parties, but European-style economic nationalism is on the rise in the U.S. The latest batch of purloined diplomatic cables from WikiLeaks, first reported in the New York Times, shows how embassies under Obama and Bush function as sales teams for giant jetmaker Boeing, a legendary subsidy suckler. The leaked cables are revealing, but unsurprising, as they fit familiar patterns. First, they cement Boeing's reputation as deeply dependent on the U.S. government for its profits. Second, they echo President Obama's rhetoric portraying global trade as a country-versus-country competition in which all Americans have a direct stake in U.S. exporters, and our government has a direct role in boosting American business.

"Following months of heavy lobbying by the Ambassador," a January 2008 memo from America's embassy in Bahrain proudly reports, "the Crown Prince and King rejected a Gulf Air proposal to buy Airbus and directed the airline to make a deal with Boeing." The cable touts this "significant Embassy commercial advocacy success," adding as a footnote, "Boeing's stock opened sharply higher January 14, following the weekend announcement." A Boeing official thanked the embassy for being "a strong advocate for Boeing" and called the Bahrain deal "a model that we should really aspire to replicate in other countries."

In Tanzania in 2007, U.S. embassy officials reported that they "have engaged at the highest reaches of this government, and for the moment halted the rush to Airbus and opened a window that Boeing intends to exploit." In Turkey in 2004, an embassy cable solemnly expressed "concern about extensive lobbying by senior European Union officials and the heads of state of Germany and France on behalf of Airbus," before assuring State and Commerce Department officials that the embassy "will continue its active advocacy on behalf of Boeing."

President Bush wrote a letter to Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz "advocating for two U.S. companies, Boeing and General Electric (GE), bid for the upgrade of Saudi Arabian Airline and the Royal fleet," according to one cable. An embassy official in Jordan worried in 2004 that a recent letter from "influential members of Congress" would be no match for the pro-Airbus pressure King Abdullah II bin al-Hussein would meet in an upcoming trip to Europe. The cable said, "the King needs to receive a high-level phone call from Washington reinforcing the President's previously expressed desire -- repeated in the Secretary's letter -- urging the King to buy Boeing."

This routine wasn't unique to the Bush administration. In fact, it fits pretty well into Obama's trade policy. In 2010, for instance, embassy officials in Turkey reported back on the steps needed to "maximize the chances for a sale" by Boeing. As Boeing spokesman Tim Neale told me, "President Obama himself has said as part of his export initiative he would like to see embassy officials around the world do even more of that."

The embassies aren't Obama's only tools for boosting Boeing. In fiscal 2009, the U.S. Export-Import Bank, a government agency that finances U.S. exports, dedicated 90 percent of its loan-guarantee dollars to subsidizing Boeing sales. While that jaw-dropping performance falls on Bush's shoulders as much as Obama's, Obama looks pretty Boeing-friendly.

Obama has pledged to double U.S. exports in five years, naming Boeing CEO Jim McNerney as chairman of the export council. Chicago Mayor and Obama ally Richard Daley lured Boeing to Chicago with a generous raft of subsidies. Obama campaign aide and possible chief of staff Bill Daley sat on Boeing's board. Obama Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, as Washington state governor, convened a special legislative session in 2003 -- called "The Boeing Session" -- which approved $3.2 billion in subsidies for the jetmaker. Former Obama administration official Oscar Ramirez is now a Boeing lobbyist, as is Linda Daschle, wife of Obama confidant Tom Daschle.

Boeing spokesman Neale justifies the aid by pointing to Europe's copious subsidy of Airbus and because "commercial airplanes are our biggest manufactured export. They do support a lot of jobs across the United States."

I asked Neale why embassies should act as a sales force. He replied: "It could be because we're having a problem in a particular country. But more often than not, it's simply to ask them to encourage foreign buyers to buy American products -- in our case, our airplanes."

In Obama's mind, where Boeing-versus-Airbus is a proxy for U.S.-versus-Europe, exports mean jobs -- and creating jobs is

his job. So if you're a big exporter, Obama's got your back. If you're a taxpayer, you get the bill.

Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.

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