Bush: back from Asia

January 10, 1992

President Bush returns from his Asian trip weaker physically and politically, his judgment suspect as to how well he takes care of himself and the country.

His fainting spell at a Japanese state dinner after 10 days of hectic, over-the-speed-limit diplomacy was a crude reminder that he is re-elected this November, he will be the second-oldest president ever to take the inaugural oath. His fumbling attempt to use his office to flog American cars in Tokyo pleased neither his hosts nor the Detroit moguls he brought along with him.

Bush predictably will try to put a gloss on the package of promised trade concessions he extracted from the embarrassed Japanese. But it will have no immediate impact on the recession, and its value will have to be judged two or three years down the road. The track record on such hectoring is not encouraging.

If this trip were designed to resuscitate the president's declining ratings, it flopped. No one could have anticipated his illness, or the shocking pictures of a president slumped in the arms of the Japanese prime minister. This riveting spectacle will have to be dealt with by a complete, unvarnished health report to the American people. But the likelihood that Bush would encounter tough resistance in Japan to trade demands that, in any event, would never satisfy the protectionist yearnings of auto industry executives or Democratic foes back home, should have been foreseen.

More than that, the whole attempt to turn a state visit into a trade mission should have been scorned by the president and his advisers.

All this is frustrating, not only to those Americans dismayed by Bush's deviation from his own beliefs in free trade but to Japanese politicians who know this president's aversion to protectionism far exceeds any of his would-be Democratic successors. One is left to hope that out of the Tokyo summit will come greater Japanese support for the U.S. drive to put global trade reform negotiations back on track under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

The world's greatest economic superpowers have joint interests, despite their chronic bickering, to open up world markets in agriculture and services, as well as in traditional manufactured goods. Instead of jousting with one another, they should bring the Europeans to heel.

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