The Bush administration Tuesday imposed new tariffs on steel imports to provide a three-year breathing space for the struggling U.S. steel industry. The measures may well trigger a trade war with other steel producing countries.

In the end, President Bush compromised. He gave the steel industry less protection than it wanted. But the tariffs of up to 30 percent on some products will raise the prices of imported steel and make it harder for the importers to compete. They could hit back with restrictions on U.S. products.

Robert Zoellick, the president's top trade official, warned these countries not to retaliate, saying they themselves have restricted steel imports and paid unfair subsidies to their steel companies. "I've been as free trade as they come," he said. "But if you look at the steel industry this is a worldwide industry that has just been rife with these subsidies and unfair practices."

The major problem in steel is that there is too much of it on the world market. The United States after China is the world's biggest steel importer. Imports have pushed U.S. steel prices to a 20-year low but they have also cost thousands of high paying jobs and brought the struggling U.S. steel industry to the brink of bankruptcy.

Alan Greenspan, the U.S. central bank chief, last week told lawmakers that the president's steel decision would have a critical impact not only on how foreign countries view U.S. trade policy, but also on the many U.S. industries that use steel. "It's also an issue of what a marked increase in steel import prices would do to the cost of steel using industries [at home], of which the numbers are quite substantially higher than the roughly 100 to 175 thousand who work directly in the [U.S.] steel industry," he said.