(March 18) President Bush made a potentially dangerous wager on three fronts when he slapped tariffs ranging from 8% to 30% on steel imports.

The tariffs, prompted by what Bush called dumping but widely viewed by trading partners as a political attempt to save U.S. steel industry jobs, has been criticized in Europe, Russia, South Korea and Japan. That’s certainly no surprise.

But surprises abound. Take, for example, the timing of Bush’s action. The president has imposed these tariffs, which many U.S. allies see as a violation of international law, when he is working to hold together a worldwide coalition to combat terrorism. That such a course would be taken by the nation viewed as the world’s leading proponent of free trade is baffling. It sends a mixed message that is difficult to defend. And, finally, the steel tariffs threaten to harm U.S. exports of agricultural products, one sector of the economy that consistently runs counter to the seemingly ever-growing trade deficit.

Russia, a steel-producing nation, already has acted. It imposed a ban on U.S. poultry imports.

Unfortunately, Russia’s retaliatory act probably is only the first. Other U.S. agricultural exports, including citrus, berries, apples and broccoli, could face trade barriers. Several nations have vowed to take their case against the steel tariffs to the World Trade Organization.

At least no U.S. allies have backed out of the force to fight terrorism, and it’s unlikely that such reaction will occur.

But the imposition of steel tariffs runs the real risk of igniting a trade war. And, in the long run, no one wins a trade war.