President Bush wasn't always the most principled free trader in his first term -- recall the 2002 farm bill and his tariffs on steel imports -- but we can only hope that his decisive reelection will allow him to become a more consistent champion of bringing down global trade barriers. This is one area where his administration's professed beliefs, if aggressively pursued, could advance American interests while also lessening resentment of American power.
By aggressively pursuing this agenda, we mean standing up to protectionists at home, which include not only Democratic-leaning unions but also powerful GOP constituencies like sugar and cotton barons. A Central American Free Trade Agreement, which Bush signed in May, is likely to be the first postelection item on the legislative trade agenda. Bush should fight to ensure its ratification -- spending some of his cherished political capital, if necessary -- and the Democratic leadership should think twice before standing in his way. Not only is protectionism wrongheaded, it's a political loser.
The so-called CAFTA linking the U.S. market to Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica -- and a companion deal with the Dominican Republic -- would provide American exports with greater access to those countries. In return, it would offer those nations their best hope for raising their standards of living, and, as NAFTA did for Mexico, would help solidify economic reforms and bolster the rule of law in the region. As a political gesture, the trade deal would be a fitting tribute for a region that has come so far from the chaotic, often deadly, instability of 20 years ago.