Talks on a U.S.-South Korea free-trade pact broke down Wednesday just as President Obama arrived to make it the centerpiece of his grand Asian tour. We have news for him: Talks aren't what's needed now.
The president's expensive 10-day caravan to Asia's biggest democracies was intended to showcase that American power still matters in the Pacific. To underline it, no goal was presented as more important than getting the long-stalled trade pact with South Korea out the door by November, a deadline President Obama grandly announced to all the world last June.
Passage would show American economic might in a region where China is rapidly gaining trade and strategic influence. It would also boost the U.S. economy in a way not seen since 1993, when Nafta, about the same size as the Korean deal, was signed.
Tariffs would be dropped on 95% of American goods entering Korea's huge, wealthy market, adding $40 billion to U.S. GDP and, according to a U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimate, 250,000 jobs.
The peak moment of U.S. presidential influence came and went with that face-to-face meeting in Seoul. Now the chances for passage are more remote than ever.
In Asia, there's a phrase for this kind of fiasco: lost face.
The real issue is there didn't need to be any talks at all. The U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement was signed and sealed in 2007. The Koreans think a deal is a deal and don't want to renegotiate. Really, all Obama has to do is submit it to Congress for a vote.
Unfortunately, Obama blasted Korean and other free-trade deals as "bad trade pacts" during his 2008 presidential run. As a result, he now seems desperate to save face by "tweaking" this treaty with changes to previously negotiated deals on autos and beef, as if professional U.S. trade negotiators didn't get the best deal they could back then. They did. This is just a political kabuki show.
It's not too late for Obama to save face on this trip, which has been a disaster for U.S. trade policy. All he needs to do is submit the pact that's already been negotiated to Congress for a vote.