Bob Zoellick Censored; Bush Goes Soft on Free Trade with Steel Tariff

Article excerpt

Byline: Tod Lindberg, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

It's impossible to read the transcript of U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick's March 5 press briefing on the 30 percent tariff the Bush administration decided to slap on imported steel without coming away with the impression of a man who would rather be somewhere else.

This administration has done much to reinvigorate the free-trade agenda, Mr. Zoellick insisted, and so therefore, ahem, we'll be protecting our domestic steel manufacturers. We believe in the efficacy of the World Trade Organization, and that's why we're taking advantage of a foolish loophole free-trade advocates have long been opposed to in order to protect them. Pressed by reporters on recent statements he had made about the cost of protectionism being borne by consumers, falling heaviest on those who earn the least, Mr. Zoellick said it's hard to predict costs, and anyway steel prices are at a 20-year low. Asked about the possibility of retaliation by our trading partners, Mr. Zoellick pointed out that they've long been heavily into the steel subsidy business themselves. Asked whether the decision affects his credibility as a promoter of free trade, Mr. Zoellick noted that the four countries with free-trade agreements with the United States - Canada, Mexico, Israel and Jordan - would not be subjected to the tariffs, an inducement for others to enter into such agreements. And anyway, the steel tariff is temporary - three years, no longer.

Ouch, that must have been painful. In truth, the administration has no more committed an advocate of trade liberalization than Mr. Zoellick. It's now abundantly clear that his advocacy is indispensable. The trade agenda is stalled, and it's going to take the concerted application of pressure by those who are truly committed in order to get it moving again.

The drift is not new. Two of President Clinton's finest hours were the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 and the creation of the World Trade Organization in 1995, the culmination of the Uruguay round of trade talks begun in 1986. But trade liberalization is the quintessential issue on which progress is possible only with the expenditure of political capital. The benefits of liberalizing trade are huge but dispersed. The argument is one between economists, acting out of principle, and powerful vested interests, both economic and political, arguing for protection. The battle is winnable for a president committed to free trade, as 50 years of postwar liberalization demonstrate. But winning requires a high level of presidential engagement, as well as capable behind-the-scenes players. …