- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 18, 2009

It’s ironic that President Obama is ending his weeklong Asian tour in Seoul tomorrow. For a trip intended to help expand ties between the United States and countries in the region, it only focuses greater attention on the president’s incoherent trade policy, especially his inaction on a valuable free-trade deal with South Korea.

Korea of late has been strengthening economic ties with other countries. Seoul signed a trade deal with the European Union last month and approved another deal with India earlier this month. All the while, the Obama administration’s dithering on a bilateral U.S.-South Korean deal is undermining America’s economic position in the region.

Pending since 2007, the deal could boost the $80 billion in annual trade with our seventh-largest trading partner by as much as $20 billion. The Korean agreement would create domestic jobs by allowing for an expansion of U.S. exports to the region. Nevertheless, Mr. Obama is bowing to pressure from protectionist congressional liberals and his Big Labor supporters who are fearful of more Korean imports.

Seeking to downplay any concerns before the trip, Jeffrey A. Bader, the president’s top National Security Council official for East Asia, sought to assure those concerned that the administration remains “committed to the U.S.-Korea free trade agreement.” However, the administration’s lack of enthusiasm for the subject was revealed in Mr. Bader’s hedge about the “very political context surrounding trade.”

Mr. Bader’s confirmation that the administration is trying to work out outstanding differences with the South Korean government, particularly related to gaining greater access to the Korean market for U.S. automakers, reopens negotiations on issues on a deal that was completed two years ago.

No doubt, U.S. carmakers should have the same access to the Korean market that Korean companies get to American consumers. However, that could be negotiated under the auspices of a functioning bilateral free-trade agreement. Delaying action on such a deal only serves to undermine the U.S. position by sowing doubts in the mind of our trade partner.

The White House continues to send other troubling protectionist signals to our trading partners. Beyond slapping tariffs on imports of cheap Chinese tires, the administration largely has ignored other important free-trade deals with Colombia and Panama that were negotiated during the George W. Bush administration. The Obama team’s internal debate over whether to participate in a broad Asian-Pacific free-trade partnership with seven nations only further clouds the trade picture for our economic allies.

Delaying action on free trade undermines America’s economic vitality at a time when the nation is struggling to pull out of a major economic downturn. Inaction on the Korean trade pact and other trade agreements allows other nations to step into the economic vacuum. With the U.S. unemployment rate at 10 percent and rising, Mr. Obama should be looking to expand U.S. economic opportunities around the world, not stymie them.