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Woody Allen Does Trade

Did a 1982 Woody Allen movie anticipate Robert Zoellick's performance as U.S. Trade Representative?

May 1, 2002

Did a 1982 Woody Allen movie anticipate Robert Zoellick's performance as U.S. Trade Representative?

Alas, the similarity is not just in name. You may recall that “Zelig,” a 1982 movie that purports to be a black-and-white mock documentary, features a main character who is cursed by a chameleon-like ability to resemble whoever he happens to be among.

In a hilarious sequence of stills, Leonard Zelig — played by Woody Allen — is shown blending in at a Nazi rally, just as easily as he does with a group of Hassidic Jews.

Leonard Zelig is a typical Woody Allen character — someone who badly wants to fit in with the group. Unfortunately, this seems to be the same affliction that Bob Zoellick has been suffering from since joining the Bush Administration.

Mr. Zoellick’s presumably lofty ideas on global trade and reciprocity are nowhere in evidence. Instead, he has passively acquiesced to some highly damaging White House initiatives on trade. Case in point: slapping tariffs on imported steel, which will surely antagonize America’s most important trading partners. A trade war is already brewing, as the European Commission has threatened to slap its own tariffs on U.S. exports.

A similarly disastrous conflict has developed between the United States and Canada, the world’s largest bilateral trading partners, after the Bush Administration imposed heavy tariffs on Canada’s lumber exports. These are hardly policies consistent with leadership in free trade, which it would seem Mr. Zoellick wants the United States to maintain.

Of course, the Bush Administration is only slapping on those tariffs because it wants to protect U.S. business — and curry electoral favor with powerful unions in the steel and lumber industries. But we wonder: Why is Mr. Zoellick going along? Is it because he wants to fit in?

As a matter of fact, a “Zelig syndrome” seems to be endemic in the Bush Administration. Christine Todd Whitman, for example, left her post as a highly popular New Jersey governor to become the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Her idea to keep U.S. policy options on the Kyoto Protocol open was rejected by the White House, which was eager to please its big business backers. Now Ms. Whitman finds herself blending in with the polluters.

If the syndrome is contagious, then who will succumb next? Could it be Colin Powell — whose sensible foreign policy views are being increasingly overruled by the hawks in the Administration?