THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION rushes headlong at some issues: It faces down rogue states, locks down swing states, locks up terrorist suspects. The Bush administration runs away from other issues: It ignores the coming baby bust; it fumbles the reforms that followed Enron's bust; it fiddles while AIDS burns. On trade, however, the administration is trying to shift from one category to the other. Having started out by caving in to farm and steel protectionists, the Bush team now reaches for trade glory. On Tuesday it proposed the worldwide elimination of tariffs on manufactured products by 2015.
This isn't just cheap grandstanding. The administration has braved a fight with some mean domestic adversaries. The American Textile Manufacturers Institute, whose super-protected members want developing-country garment makers to remain poor forever, denounced the administration's initiative as "an outright gift to China." The autoworkers' union, which enjoys the comfort of a 25 percent tariff on foreign pickup trucks, is similarly outraged. The administration's answer to these critics is exactly the right one. Free trade boosts competition, which boosts efficiency and innovation, which boosts prosperity for millions of Americans and for billions of people in the poor world.
Unfortunately, the administration's trade conversion is not quite complete. Tuesday's proposal said nothing about reining in the egregious "trade remedy" laws that the United States uses to block imports that are politically awkward. Unless these remedies are remedied, the U.S. position is that all manufactured goods will be free of duty -- except those covered by anti-dumping suits, countervailing duty suits and presidentially imposed tariffs of the sort currently afflicting steel.
Equally, Tuesday's proposal did not cover processed foods, defining these as agricultural products rather than manufactured ones. This is a sop to the U.S. farm lobby, which harvests $19 billion a year in government subsidies. It is a blow to poor farmers in $1-a-day economies, who would like not merely to grow fruit but to can it as well. Until the Bush team fixes this processed-foods exception, its position effectively will be that poor countries should escape from poverty by building up their industry, but preferably not the particular industry in which they have a natural advantage.
Finally, the effect of Tuesday's announcement may be muffled by a separate argument that caused a breakdown in trade talks in Geneva yesterday. Poor countries are seeking broad rights to import cheap generic copies of patented medicines so that treatment for cancer or diabetes could be made more widely available. But the Bush administration is trying to restrict access to generics, even though there's no policy excuse for this. Why should developing countries embrace patent systems that promote the development of yet more medicines that poor patients can't afford?
Precisely because Tuesday's proposal is bold and virtuous, the Bush team needs to fix its blemishes. Otherwise, it will prove useless. The zero-tariff proposal is going to appall developing-country protectionists -- India's average tariff on manufactured goods stands at 32 percent, Brazil's is around 14 percent, and so on. These countries will seize any excuse to question the good faith of Tuesday's proposal, since facing down protectionist lobbies in New Delhi or Brasilia is no easier than in Washington. Thanks to those blemishes, poor-country protectionists have too many excuses to mock the U.S. trade position rather than respond seriously. The excuses are the enemy, and President Bush must spare no effort to eliminate them.