Bush's missing trade mark

President Bush may leave only a few legacies that last for decades, such as a more conservative Supreme Court or a more democratic Middle East. But in one potentially grand legacy, he is so far faltering: Uplifting the world's poor and helping American consumers by finishing up a new global trade pact.

Mr. Bush all but admitted that difficulty last Wednesday by devoting a large portion of his speech before the UN General Assembly to why the world talks on trade liberalization should be invigorated.

He even tossed out a bone of goodwill by offering to drop all barriers to trade if other nations did the same.

The talks, known as the Doha Round for having started in the capital of Qatar, have run on for four years. Unless there's a big breakthrough before the next meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) this December, the window for a deal is closing fast.

One of the biggest deal-breakers is Congress. Its mood toward more open trade has darkened in recent years as global competition has stiffened and as many American workers and industries appear unable to keep pace. Two months ago, the House passed the Central America Free Trade Agreement, but only by two votes - and after much arm-twisting and pork-dealing by the White House.

Congress also may be reluctant to renew the president's special negotiating authority, which mandates that lawmakers can only vote on a proposed trade pact as a whole, without making changes. Bush won that authority in 2002 - by only three votes in the House - and it expires in July 2007. That date creates some urgency for nations to do the horse-trading needed to finish a pact by December so Congress can take it up next year.

But Congress isn't alone in wanting to protect domestic interests from foreign goods and services.

France's stubbornness in protecting its farmers from much competition has hindered the European Union from offering to lower agricultural tariffs during the talks. A US-EU agreement on food trade is the linchpin for Doha's success and for persuading poorer nations to jump on board.

Bush placed open trade in its proper moral terms by saying it "could lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty over the next 15 years." But up to now, faced with so many challenges at home, the president hasn't devoted much of his energy to the talks.

And his administration continues to seek bilateral and regional trade pacts, which on their merits are worthwhile but make Swiss cheese of current global trade rules - although they do apply pressure on nations to finish Doha.

The latest US target for a bilateral deal is South Korea, which would be quite a strategic move for the US in dealing with China's expansion. Bush will visit Seoul in November.

Getting 148 nations to agree on Doha's 22 trade topics requires strong leadership from the US. Starting with Ronald Reagan, the US provided the leadership that led to the creation of the WTO a decade ago.

But equally demanding for Bush is the need to spend time persuading Congress that further opening of markets will, as it has for centuries in America, eventually lead to rising living standards.

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