(Dec. 10) A rethinking of excessive steel tariffs may not play well around the corridors of Big Steel in Pittsburgh. But, for other industries — notably the produce business — in other regions of the U.S., a move by the Bush administration to let go of the tariffs was welcome news.

And it was perfectly harmonious with the chorus of a rebounding stock market and economic picture across the country — including the Steel City.

Pittsburgh, a pioneer of the National Football League, should appreciate a change in strategy as well as any other city. Dumping the steel tariffs as bad policy amounts to NFL officials getting a disputed call right upon further review.

Chalk one up for the replay system.

Put simply, the steep tariffs on imported steel, which President Bush put in place in March 2002 as a political ploy to woo support in steel-reliant states like Pennsylvania, didn’t play well to the world audience.

Fortunately, the president, like a good quarterback, appears to be quick on his feet, able to audible on a moment’s notice — acknowledging that in politics, as in the Bible, minutes can be like hours — and alter strategy.

White House advisers had been pushing the president to abandon the tariffs, which attracted threats of retaliatory duties from other countries that could have reached billions of dollars.
The steel industry insists that without the tariffs, cheap foreign steel will again flood the U.S. market and could lead to the elimination of thousands of steel jobs.

But this issue doesn’t simply affect steel. It slops over into countless other segments of the U.S. economy, including the multipronged produce business.

Citrus and apples were, perhaps, front and center in the line of fire. About three-quarters of U.S. citrus production and 60% of the apple industry are concentrated in two states — both of which are politically sensitive to the president.

The next presidential election, remember, is less than a year away.

Florida, where the president’s brother, Jeb, is governor, leaps to mind as a particularly precarious balancing act. Florida is home to a large part of the nation’s citrus industry, which relies heavily on export markets.

It also happens to be the flashpoint for the 2000 presidential elections, in which Bush’s margin of victory, by some counts, is dwarfed by the attendance at some family reunions.

Political gamesmanship, of course, is the art of the trade-off, and Bush is becoming, to a certain degree, a master of the craft. The president, keep in mind, has put his political girth behind budget-busting entitlements for health care and obscene outlays for an education system that is in its death throes.

He has not wavered from those positions, much as he has virtually staked his entire presidency on U.S. success in the war on terror.

But, in the past, Bush hasn’t fully grasped the skill of deal brokering in matters of trade.

Where individual steelworkers are concerned, perhaps the steel tariffs temporarily won over a few supporters for Bush. But from a rank-and-file perspective, the steel industry appears unmoved: The steelworkers union has thrown its support behind Missouri Democrat Dick Gephardt.

The European Union threatened to impose retaliatory tariffs of up to 30% on a carefully calculated list of U.S. exports, including apples and citrus.

Additional sanctions still could follow if the U.S. fails to eliminate export subsidies that the World Trade Organization calls illegal.

In early November, the WTO reiterated that the steel tariffs were not justified by any proven surge in steel imports and were, therefore, illegal.

Something had to give in the long-standing argument over tariffs. And something did.

International trade is tricky business. It is an arena, in fact, in which traditional political loyalties can wither away on a single issue. Witness President Clinton’s adamant support of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was a virtual betrayal of the unions that had given him their undying support in his 1992 presidential run.

It is understandable that business interests in the U.S. would be wary of cheaper goods from abroad. The U.S. trade deficit with China, which last year passed $103 billion, provides an apt illustration of how American companies can grow addicted to cheap hourly labor that is out of the reach of U.S. law.

Taking drastic pre-emptive action, whether it be slapping exorbitant duties on Chinese clothing or European steel, is problematic. Actions like that generally bring an equal and opposite reaction.

The U.S. produce industry knows, no doubt, that scratching the back of one business sector can break the back of another. China, of course, is another key developing market for U.S. fruits and vegetables. And Europe, too, still has plenty of growth potential for U.S.-grown fruits and vegetables.

The Bush administration seems to be coming to that realization in scuttling the steel duties.

Much of the world’s attention has been focused, rightly, on the events in Iraq in the past several months.

Yet the stench of war has shown signs of enveloping the business world, as well.

No one ever welcomes a full-blown trade war. If one ever broke out, the costs would be far more than political.