Protectionist Bush?

Was it domestic politics trumping free trade? Or really a case of foreign producers taking advantage of government subsidies to dump their goods on the US market?

In any case, President Bush has ordered an investigation that could curb inexpensive steel imports.

The real story may be that this free-trader president could be using this move to win over Democrats in Congress on another trade issue: granting him "fast-track" negotiating authority. With that, trade pacts would be subject only to an up-or-down vote in Congress with no added conditions.

Bush may also be winning friends in big steel-producing states like Pennsylvania and West Virginia, which could pay off in the next election.

But these domestic concerns also rattle overseas allies and competitors. The response from Europe, where Bush travels next week, has been alarm - not so much for the possible effect on European steelmakers, as for what this could portend about growing US protectionism and future cross-Atlantic trade battles. US anti-dumping laws are one barrier to new global trade talks.

Other countries worry that any restricting of the US steel market will just mean rolling protectionism and a flow of cheap steel elsewhere. That scenario is particularly worrisome in the midst of an economic slowdown.

The president will have some hard explaining to do in Europe. He'll need to reassure trading partners that expanded trade is still his goal.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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