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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bush Decision Could Come Home to Roost

Since taking office, U.S. President George W. Bush has made his bold decisions seem so effortless that a lot of people began to wonder why Al Gore got more votes, why so many people dismissed Dubya as inarticulate and not too bright and why so many voters had failed to see what a perfect president he'd make. This may have had more to do with the events of Sept. 11. After then, the diffusion of the United States' enemies, who were at once so numerous and invisible, meant that confronting them, or appearing to, was as simple as flying lots of American flags and saying patriotic things over and over again.

Then, last week, Bush was faced with an excruciating decision, one in which he would have to make a lot of people mad, one in which his principles, or the lack of them, would be transparent. The issue was steel imports and whether to continue the Clinton administration's policy of moving steadily toward freer trade. He didn't.

Even right-wing pundit George F. Will had one of his pompous fits over Bush's action. The president, Will said, had "cooked up an unpalatable confection of tariffs and import quotas that mock his free-trade rhetoric," all "for the benefit of about six Republican congressional candidates in steel-producing districts and for Bush's re-election campaign."

Meanwhile, the reaction abroad was at once predictable, furious and full of retaliatory threats. Bush's action provoked alarm in states such as Mississippi, a major poultry producer, where there was panic about the possible loss of the Russian chicken market. This is a big deal because Russia imported 1 million tons of U.S. chickens last year

These and other chickens could come home to roost all over Bush's steel policies.

Someone must tell Bush that, basically, the argument for free trade is one that ended 72 years ago. That's when President Herbert Hoover signed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, a broadly protectionist piece of mischief that 1,000 economists had petitioned him to veto. The result was very clear. Hoover may not have created the Great Depression with his bare hands, but in the subsequent collapse of world trade he made sure that it would go on for another 10 years and that the United States would not return to prosperity until massive spending for defense yanked the nation back to full employment after 1941.

Rob Reno is a columnist for Newsday, in which this comment appeared.