Posted on February 06, 1995 in Washington Watch
By any measure, Ron Brown has been a unique U.S. Secretary of Commerce. Over the past 50 years the individuals who have filled that Presidential Cabinet post at the Department of Commerce have played rather insignificant roles in the Administrations in which they served. But that has not been the case with Ron Brown.
Ron Brown has transformed the traditionally ceremonial nature of the position. In an Administration which views trade promotion as an integral component of its overall foreign policy, Brown’s role has been substantial.
And while Secretary Brown has recently faced partisan Republican attacks from some members of the new Congress, he has received high praise from the normally Republican business community. One such business leader recently told me:
“I’m a Republican, but I can honestly say, we in the U.S. business community have never had a friend in Washington like Ron Brown. He understands that the key to U.S. economic security is export promotion and in increasingly competitive foreign markets, we’ve needed support. The Japanese and Europeans get that help from their government. Now we have friend in Washington who supports our efforts.”
Only in office for two years, Brown has established a high international profile as a globetrotting Secretary of Commerce. Bringing delegations of U.S. businessmen with him, he has promoted successful commercial ventures in China, India, South America and the Middle East.
Now in the Middle East for his third visit to the region as Secretary of Commerce, Brown brings with him a complex agenda of commercial and foreign policy concerns.
Support for the Peace Process
Brown will meet with Yasir `Arafat, officials of the Palestine National Authority and Palestinian businessmen in an effort to support the economic development he knows is critical to the success of the peace process. He will convene two business roundtables, in Ramallah and Gaza, at which he will hear the concerns of the Palestinian business community, especially regarding the impediments that have made economic development difficult; but he will also brief them on the services the U.S. will make available to support the growth of small- and medium -sized businesses in the territories.
While in Gaza, the Secretary will also announce the opening of the first joint U.S.-Palestinian business venture. In so doing he will spotlight the first successful project supported by the U.S.-based Builders for Peace.
In Israel, Brown will announce the first projects under the aegis of the U.S.-Israel Science and Technology Commission. He will also meet with Israeli government and business leaders.
During his stop in Taba, Secretary Brown will participate in the first ever meeting of U.S., Palestinian, Egyptian, Jordanian and Israeli Economic Ministers to discuss regional economic cooperation and development.
Support Continued U.S.-GCC Economic Cooperation
In Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, Brown will meet with heads of state, ministerial counterparts and the business leadership to sign contracts for major development projects and to support further U.S.-Gulf business ventures.
All in all, the trip’s agenda is both complex and far reaching. In making his third sojourn to the Middle East, Secretary Brown is demonstrating his familiarity with the region and its leadership. The Secretary also intends the trip to be a visible demonstration of the U.S. commitment to regional peace and long-term mutually beneficial trade relations.
Prior to his departure, Secretary Brown held a briefing for Arab American business and community leaders at the Department of Commerce. At that meeting he outlined the program of his six country regional tour and listened to the concerns and suggestions of the assembled Arab Americans.
It must be remembered that Brown is no stranger to the Arab American community – another respect in which he is unique.
At the 1988 Democratic National Convention, Brown served as Committee Chair of the Jesse Jackson for President campaign. In that capacity he provided important access to Arab Americans, whom he understood had long been denied a role in the Democratic Party. And in the intervening years Ron Brown never abandoned that commitment to inclusiveness.
I will never forget that upon assuming the role of Chairman of the Democratic Party in 1989, Brown invited me to his office to be the first official meeting he held as Party Chair. It was a signal that the exclusion of Arab Americans from U.S. politics was to be a thing of the past.
While he was Party Chair, Brown addressed our Arab American Institute conferences and, despite pressure from those who continued to feel threatened by Arab American empowerment, he even traveled to meet Arab American groups in different communities around the U.S. As DNC Chair Brown was also helpful in securing Arab Americans roles in the party, on its committees and in the 1992 Clinton Presidential campaign.
As Commerce Secretary, Ron Brown has held numerous meetings with Arab Americans – a first for any Secretary of Commerce – and has invited Arab Americans to accompany him on each of his Middle East trips.
When Bill Clinton won the November 1992 elections, the press immediately began to speculate on who the President-elect would appoint to fill his Cabinet. There was one name high on everyone’s list: Ron Brown.
As Chairman of the Party, Brown was given major credit for the Democratic victory that year. When Democrats had lost hope that a Democrat could return to the White House, it seemed that only Ron Brown continued to believe that the party could win. And during the intensely-fought Democratic Presidential primary of 1992, when the candidates attacked each other with more ferocity than they used on their Republican opponent, it seemed that only Ron Brown held the party faithful together.
He was a prodigious vote-getter and fund raiser. And he brought a uniquely professional staff to work for the party during his tenure as Chair.
There were those who felt that an African American could not succeed in unifying the Democratic Party – Brown proved them wrong. When President Clinton rewarded Brown’s service with the Secretary of Commerce post, there were again some voices who wondered whether a liberal Democrat and an African American could perform well in that role – and again Brown has proven his skeptics wrong and shown his qualification for high office. And as I have noted, he has turned skeptics in the U.S. business community into his strongest supporters.
As Secretary of Commerce, Brown oversees an agency of 36,000 employees working over 100 different departments, with a budget of $3.6 billion. The range of activity under the Department of Commerce is so broad that it is, at times, baffling, including such diverse organizations as the Foreign Commercial Service, the U.S. Weather Service, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (which provides daily translations of radio and television broadcasts, and newspaper articles from every major region of the world).
While most past Secretaries of Commerce have seen their role as ceremonial or as simply administrative, Brown has defined a new role for himself. In the post Cold-War era, in an economically interdependent world where foreign policy at times equals trade policy, Brown has successfully sought to elevate the role of Secretary of Commerce into a foreign emissary for U.S. bilateral economic ties with the new major emerging markets (Russia, China, South America, the Middle East and India). His efforts have already led to over $20 billion in new U.S. contracts in those markets; but he has also won good will for the U.S. and its international relations everywhere he has traveled.
Brown is currently under attack from some partisan Republicans in Congress for what they allege are ethical improprieties in some of his dealings before assuming his Cabinet post. While the business deals he conducted prior to his confirmation as Secretary of Commerce have already been reviewed and approved by the various government ethics committees, the attacks continue.
Some feel that these attacks have more to do with denying Brown any future advancement than they do with any real past indiscretions. President Clinton has reportedly considered asking Brown to head his 1996 reelection campaign, and some have suggested that, should Secretary of State Warren Christopher resign, Brown would be an ideal Secretary of State (in fact, back in 1991 some newspapers speculated he might be appointed Secretary of State).
Brown, for his part, maintains that he is content to remain at Commerce. It is a position that he has elevated in stature and defined in a new way. He is, indeed, a unique Secretary of Commerce.
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