AS HE LEFT on a two-week trip to Japan, Australia, Singapore and Korea Monday, President Bush said his main message will be this: "Free trade is a two-way street."

That was the right chord to strike right before an important trade mission. But dissonant sounds from Capitol Hill will make it harder for the U.S. message to be heard.Shortly after Congress returns in January, two leading Democrats - Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri and Sen. Donald Riegle of Michigan - plan to introduce a punitive bill aimed at forcing Japan to eliminate its $42 billion trade surplus with the United States. If the surplus isn't gone within five years, the United States would retaliate by limiting imports of Japanese cars.

There is a lot wrong with that proposal. It tries to penalize Japan for its success in the U.S. market, and it threatens new barriers to protect a domestic industry - the sort of thing for which the United States criticizes others.

Free trade is, indeed, a two-way street. That's why Mr. Bush is right to push Japan to open its markets fully to U.S. goods. Closing U.S. markets, as the protectionists on Capitol Hill would do, is exactly the wrong approach.

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