Watergate was once again the site of intrigue and stealth, only this time the GOP head of state couldn’t wait to tell the world about what it all had produced: something called the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The White House was in a panicked rush to complete the free trade accord, linking the American, Canadian, and Mexican economies in time for the Republican National Convention. But Congress, vested with constitutional authority in foreign trade matters, would not be allowed to see the treaty for several more weeks.

Governor Clinton, the elites of both political parties, and most of the American business community support NAFTA. The conventional view is that by removing trade and investment barriers in all three nations (thereby establishing the single largest “trade bloc” in the world), our manufacturers will better be able to compete with their increasingly formidable and bold Asian and European counterparts. Moreover, its advocates say, NAFTA will lock in the dramatic economic reforms undertaken by the Salinas government in Mexico, enhance political stability there, and relieve immigration pressures here.

While there indeed may be some nice things to say about the agreement (the text had not yet been released as of this writing), the speed and secrecy with which the treaty was forged leaves unanswered several troubling questions that have always surrounded the concept of “free trade” with Mexico. Perhaps the chief question facing the President centers on what is perceived to be his primary political vulnerability: Were American economic interests once again subordinated to foreign policy concerns? A case can be made that NAFTA is not so much a foreign trade initiative as it is a foreign aid initiative. In the era of no Cold War and big deficits, the State Department boys are looking for back-door ways around the political taboo on foreign aid. Through NAFTA, critics claim, Foggy Bottom can give aid to Mexico by sending them jobs now held by Americans.

Remember, Mexico is still plagued by those big debts from the 1970’s, and the international bankers at State and Treasury are nervous. They know that all the salsa in all the Taco Bells in the world won’t produce the kind of hard currency needed to service the debt. But Mexico’s reformist president has an idea that might attract the needed capital.

Carlos Salinas is the current darling of Washington, because he’s seen as a democratic capitalist. But he isn’t looking north to the American economic model as he changes Mexico. He’s looking to the turbocharged economies of Asia. The economies of South Korea, Taiwan and company used foreign investment to spur rapid growth based on exports (versus growth based on consumption). This is what Mexico wants to do, too, and President Salinas has been straightforward about it. That’s why the promise of an American boom accomplished through the sale of consumer products to 100 million Mexicans is so laughable. It’s much more likely to be the other way around.

Another question raised by the deal is whether American big business won out over smaller firms—the ones that create all the jobs in this country. Only the Fortune 500-size companies have the economies of scale to move factories across the Rio Grande. In effect, the government burdens the job-creating small companies with regulations and taxes, refuses to look out for their interests in the face of predatory foreign trade practices, and then, with a wink and a nod, allows the multinationals to escape to Mexico where wages are onetenth what they are here.

NAFTA also reveals just how the White House breaks down American jobs into good ones and bad ones. Good jobs are created when we increase exports, and bad jobs are those lost to imports. By placing nearly all its emphasis on “opening markets” abroad, Carla Hills is essentially telling American business that it must give up on the largest market in the world right here, go in search of markets overseas, and chance the whims of foreign recessions, future South Africa-like sanctions, and protectionist reactions.

President Bush brags that seven million jobs have been created through exports during his term. But only one million net new jobs have been created in that time—just 29 million jobs short of the 30 million he promised to establish during his hoped-for eight years in office. Exports are nice, but what about the 90 million jobs not dependent on them? The White House admitted that of the 400,000 new jobs it claims will be created because of NAFTA, just 130,000 will be net new jobs.

We lose or gain that many jobs in a single month. It’s a modest return for what could be a huge risk. The risk is that NAFTA will cause a job implosion in America in the long-term. Just look at Canada’s experience in the wake of its free trade agreement with America. Over a half-million manufacturing jobs lost, with 91 Canadian factories moving to Buffalo in the summer of 1991 alone. Those factories left Canada because wages there are almost two percent higher than they are in America. With Mexicans willing to work for 80 cents to a buck an hour, it doesn’t take a Kennedy School economist to project the possibility of more job losses in this country post-NAFTA.

So, aside from spouting alliterative lyrics about how NAFTA establishes a single market from the “Yukon to the Yucatan,” is the White House gambling millions of American jobs in an effort to substitute this treaty for lack of both trade and immigration policies? Is it looking for a short-term fix—cheap Mexican labor—to conceal its failure to make Americans more competitive and productive through tax and economic policies?

Of course, the Canadian example cited above does provide a ray of hope for America. If we can only become poor enough, maybe some nice, rich sugar daddy like Japan will see the benefit of one day signing a NAFTA-type accord with us.