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Last month, I commented on one of the stranger habits of the trade and globalization cheerleading Mainstream Media – the tendency to quote supposed experts who have either been consistently wrong on these issues, and/or who have no track record of pointing to any potential costs of America’s approach. Yesterday morning, a Washington Post editorial demonstrated an even stranger habit – news organizations’ tendency to assume that only modest tweaks in policies they themselves have long backed will suffice to correct weaknesses so glaring that even they have been forced to acknowledge them.

The Post has long favored U.S. trade expansion with China without any significant conditions, and dismissed critics as political panderers – and panderees. But the paper’s editorialists today suggested that the strategy they’ve endorsed since its inception was based on a whoppingly mistaken assumption. In their words:

The Clinton administration deepened economic engagement with China two decades ago on the premise that it would gradually mold China into a responsible participant in the rules-based global trading system. Yet in hindsight, the United States underestimated China’s rulers’ nationalism and their overriding concern for political power.”

Yet the Post clearly believes that Washington can put the original Clinton goals back within reach “through both diplomacy and pressure, such as the use of legal powers it has within the World Trade Organization and under U.S. trade law” – i.e., some cross words and some threats to file some more trade law suits. For good measure, its writers also display some confidence that Chinese leaders will at long last conclude that acting responsibly (as Americans define the term) is in their interests, too – in part because it will “stave off a protectionist turn in the United States and Europe.”

What remains decidedly unclear is why the Post still harbors any confidence in this or any of its own judgments regarding China. After all, following initial doubts, the paper bought the Clinton line about WTO membership rehabilitating the People’s Republic. Moreover, since China’s admission in December, 2001, Washington has faithfully followed the Post‘s prescription of predominantly – but not too frequently – relying on the organization to handle whatever trade challenges acknowledged by the paper and other backers of engaging China non-confrontationally.

For even though the free trade leanings of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama are difficult to challenge, the Post contends that both leaders have been tempted too often to use the organization in ways that amount to “dangerous nationalism” or thinly disguised, politically motivated protectionism.

Yet what have the results been of the U.S. China policy status quo? As the Post made clear yesterday, Chinese behavior that is not only unacceptable, but increasingly unacceptable.

It’s obviously high time for the Post editorial board to follow the venerable sports adage of changing a losing game if it wants to offer useful advice on dealing with Chinese trade challenges effectively. That is the paper’s goal, isn’t it?

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