On Free Trade, White House Must Lead


Investor’s Business Daily
Issues & Insights Section
July 1, 2009

Trade: President Obama’s encouraging words to Colombia’s president Monday signaled an improving outlook for the two nations’ long-delayed free trade treaty. It’s good news, but he must take that message to Congress.

Contrary to what you might think from the administration’s responses to Iran and Honduras, not all of our friends are being snubbed or our enemies embraced.

Obama showed considerable respect for our friend and ally Colombia at a working meeting with President Alvaro Uribe at the White House Monday, declaring at a joint press conference that “we are grateful for his friendship.”

It was a commendable show of leadership, and an appropriate response to Colombia, an invaluable ally in fighting drugs, terrorism, as well as being a democratic model for the region. “President Uribe’s administration I think has under very difficult circumstances performed admirably on a whole range of fronts,” Obama said.

Better still, Obama said that passing Colombia’s long-stalled free trade treaty was at the top of the bilateral agenda.

“There are obvious difficulties involved in the process, and there remains work to do. But I’m confident that ultimately we can strike a deal that is good for the people of Colombia and good for the people of the United States,” Obama said.

Great start. Now, Obama needs to follow up with strong action.

Obama told Uribe he’s dispatching U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk to work toward a solution. Kirk is an able trade rep, but it was hardly news. Obama had already issued that order last April at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad.

Politically, Obama could do much more. Kirk’s all alone out there with Congress and must confront not just ignorant elected protectionists, but monied special interests, including Big Labor, which opposes free trade on principle.

Unions gain nothing for their members by opposing the pact. They will actually damage themselves because U.S. goods now face tariffs when sold to Colombia, so union opposition to a deal effectively puts a billion tariff dollars each year into the Colombian government’s coffers — not into the pockets of private-sector union members. Given this, it’s pretty clear the U.S. unions’ real game is about clout. That’s why Kirk needs stronger support, and not just words.

By imposing a timetable for getting the pact through, Obama can do that. He should also make the big speech on trade he’s been promising for months, assuring Americans that free trade is good.

Obama could also dispatch some of his loyalist big guns to Congress to twist the arms of leadership to permit a vote on free trade with Colombia. He’s got lots of candidates.

Vice President Joe Biden, who while in the Senate played a pivotal role in helping Colombia go from failed state to success story in 1999’s Plan Colombia, knows the Senate well. He could help.

So could Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who helped muscle NAFTA through Congress in 1994 and could do the same for Colombia. The latter commands respect and fear on Capitol Hill and just his bringing it up could signal to protectionists that the game is up.

Why not get former President Bill Clinton to help, too? His support for Colombia is deep, and, based on his real commitment to free trade, his personal charm could make a difference.

The importance of moving forward can’t be underestimated. The economies of both countries are in the dumps, and free trade is a proven way to create jobs. Uribe warned Obama that Colombia’s 18% jobless rate was an invitation to the poor to join illegal armed groups — the kind that commit crimes against labor unionists.

Meanwhile, as the turmoil in Honduras showed, there’s also a strategic imperative to getting a Colombia trade deal. Latin American diplomats say it will help the U.S. to counterbalance the growing influence of regional troublemakers like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.

“It’s critically important for the U.S. to sign the free trade agreement with Colombia,” Mexico’s ambassador to the U.S., Arturo Sarukhan told IBD last week. “There is no more important geopolitical mistake the U.S. could make than to not ratify that treaty.”

Obama’s leadership is on the line. He needs to move more forcefully to get a Colombia free trade deal done. It’s time to get involved.

Publication: IBD; Date: Jul 1, 2009; Section: Issues & Insights; Page: A10

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