Political Hay

Self-Appointed Clowns

Politicians all wet on ports deal.

By 2.27.06

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Over the past few months we've been treated to a number of government spectacles that have been very instructive about the nature of our elected representatives. Remember the NSA "domestic wiretapping" flap? Immediately upon the disclosure of this program, top Democrats like Harry Reid, Patrick Leahy, and Nancy Pelosi were all over the news, admitting that they didn't know all the facts, but, nonetheless pronouncing with grave satisfaction that the program was "illegal" and an example of the President's "arrogance" and belief that he was "above the law." Now with the Dubai Ports deal, you had both Democrats and Republicans, again, woefully ignorant of the facts (but well tuned into the domestic politics of the issue), making hysterical and ludicrous claims that the deal would put Arabs in charge of port security, that we would be "selling" our ports, and even that the deal infringed on our "sovereignty." What should we think of people who call press conferences and issue bombastic statements before they know what they are talking about?

As people who have been paying attention over the past week know, the pending purchase of P&O, which now operates six U.S. port facilities, by Dubai Ports World (owned by the United Arab Emirates), has nothing to do with handing port security or customs inspections over to a foreign company or country. Dubai Ports World will be managing the transportation of cargo on and off of ships. This is not a "sale" of our ports, but merely a change in the ownership of the company that manages some port facilities. Moreover, the current operator, P&O, is already a foreign (British) company. And far from being "suspect," Dubai Ports World is a well-respected company operating ports in 15 countries and has been thoroughly vetted by the CIA. It has passed muster with the U.S. Navy for years, operating the most active port-of-call for the U.S. Navy outside of the United States, which happens to be in the United Arab Emirates. The proposed acquisition of P&O by DPW was reviewed and unanimously approved by a multi-agency federal panel, including the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security.

The concern that with Dubai Ports World taking over ownership of the former British P&O, hordes of potentially shady Arabs will be running things at our ports is, to put it bluntly, ludicrous. These same ports are not currently overrun by Brits. If one takes time to look around any of the Toyota or Honda plants in Ohio or Kentucky, one won't find bunches of Japanese. Dubai Ports World has announced that the current management teams at the U.S. ports in question will remain the same -- as one would expect. And the fact is that if Dubai Ports World wants to transfer an Arab member of its management team to some U.S. port, that person will come under the scrutiny of U.S. immigration officials -- just as would other Arab immigrants, some of whom, no doubt, are currently working at various American port facilities operated by American, or non-Arab foreign companies. But then, perhaps, Hillary Clinton will follow the logic of her outrage and introduce legislation to make it illegal for any Arab, or better yet, any Muslim to work at a U.S. port -- or with the U.S. Customs Service, or the U.S. Coast Guard.

It is true that two of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers hailed from the UAE. This fact, however, was probably not overlooked during the previous investigation, and simply to jump from this fact to the conclusion that companies from the UAE should not be allowed to operate in the United States is a logical non sequitur. The "shoe bomber" Richard Reid, and the terrorists who struck London's transportation system last year, were British citizens. We know some people with al Qaeda links are American citizens. If al Qaeda really saw any benefit to infiltrating a port operating company it could just as easily infiltrate a British company like P&O or an American company. So far, however, there is no evidence to suggest that al Qaeda or any related terrorist organization has ever made such an attempt, probably because the value of such an infiltration would be of such limited value as to make it not worth the effort.

The government of the UAE has been a strong -- perhaps the strongest -- ally of the United States in the Gulf area. Indeed, one might argue that the UAE has been more supportive of the United States' military efforts in the Middle East over the past several years than has, say, Dick Durbin or Ted Kennedy. As the administration has correctly noted, nixing this deal simply because the UAE is an Arab country would not only be a slap in the face to the UAE, but an insult to all of our allies in the region.

If you believe that all the facts will come out in congressional hearings, and that our representatives will then come to informed and considered conclusions based on the facts, then you probably didn't watch the hearings on the NSA program, or on Hurricane Katrina, or the confirmation hearings for Sam Alito. Remember, the halls of Congress are not filled with statesmen; they are filled with John Kerrys, Ted Kennedys, and Chuck Hagels. The demanded hearings on the Dubai Ports World deal will not be used by many in Congress to learn the facts (which, for many, are immaterial), but to make speeches.

There is no doubt that we can and should improve border security, and not just at our ports. But this is a separate issue from the Dubai Ports World transaction. Our opportunistic politicians would rather fulminate over the non-issue of Dubai Ports than tackle some of the more politically contentious security issues, particularly along our land borders.

With all the political posturing, from members of both parties, it is comforting to see that President Bush has the guts to stand up for what is right, and what serves the ultimate interests of the United States -- even if that stand makes him vulnerable to short-sighted and ill-informed domestic opinion. This particular virtue of the President has come out loud and clear during this controversy. But what has also come out loud and clear is the administration's lack of political adroitness. The White House's representative on the panel that examined this proposed deal should have recognized that this could become a political issue, and advised the administration to lay out all the facts and analyses directly and privately to congressional leaders instead of leaving that to the press. No doubt, this would not have prevented some of the politically motivated screaming, but at least it might have kept Lindsey Graham from making a fool of himself.

Many Republicans may eventually be persuaded by the facts (combined with pressure from a Republican administration) to drop their opposition and any congressional attempt to kill the deal will likely not have sufficient support to override a veto (should it come to that). But Democrats will not be persuaded, regardless of any hearings. The Democrats want an issue. So the party that was apoplectic about the NSA not obtaining warrants before listening in on calls into the country from al Qaeda members will choose to show how dedicated it is to national security by steadfastly opposing a deal with no real national security implications. It will be the Democrats (along with some populist Republicans) who will play the xenophobia card for all it is worth in a bid for political gain. They will be more interested in playing to the crowd than in acting like responsible leaders.

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About the Author
Brandon Crocker is the chief financial officer of a commercial real estate development and management company in San Diego.