New York Times

One of the best long-term ways to help Pakistan — and improve America’s image there — is to help Pakistanis help themselves. That is why President George W. Bush and now President Obama have pushed for slashing protective tariffs on the textiles and apparel products that are Pakistan’s biggest exports to the United States.

Congress has instead chosen partisanship and protectionism over such good sense. We hope this tragedy will finally get lawmakers to do what’s needed. Reducing or eliminating tariffs costs the American taxpayer nothing, lowers consumer prices here and the benefits would flow directly into the Pakistani civilian economy where it is desperately needed.

The trade legislation that finally emerged from the House last year was so hemmed in with protectionist limits that it was almost worthless.

It covers only exports from mountainous border provinces where the terrain and security conditions are inhospitable to industry and from which transport costs to Pakistan’s main port of Karachi are prohibitive. It reduces tariffs mainly on textile products, rather than the apparel items where Pakistan is most competitive — cotton shirts, blue jeans, trousers, socks and underwear.

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The Senate has failed to pass any tariff reductions largely because Republicans have objected to sound language in the House bill endorsing basic international labor standards for Pakistani export workers. These are especially important in a country rife with child labor abuses and a justice system that winks at the crimes of the well connected. President Obama needs to go back to Capitol Hill and press both houses to pass a far bolder trade liberalization bill.

Any legislation must knock down tariff barriers on all Pakistani textile and apparel exports — wherever they are produced. That includes the restive border area, the flood-ravaged heartland and the more industrialized coastal region.

Despite what the dwindling number of American producers say, reducing or eliminating those tariffs would mainly cut into the sales of other Asian-made jeans and T-shirts.

Until now, textiles and apparel accounted for 60 percent of Pakistan’s total exports and 40 percent of its manufacturing jobs. The industry is sure to be staggered by the floods, which washed away 20 percent of the annual cotton crop and destroyed major power stations that supply electricity to factories. Reviving this industry is critical to Pakistan’s hopes for future stability and prosperity.

American companies, and their Congressional supporters, will scream at easing tariffs. They should not be allowed to trump America’s national security interest.