Saturday, February 25, 2006

Any Port in a Storm

Our initial thought on hearing of the sale of US port management to Dubai Ports Management, a company owned by the United Arab Emirates, was that it was "crazy talk." It seemed such a ludicrous idea, we could hardly imagine how anyone could consider it. We weren't alone in leaping to that conclusion, of course, as a virtual, bipartisan firestorm has developed around the issue.

There are a few problems with this line of thinking, as you dig into it a little deeper. We are always troubled when too many people who are reliably wrong are agreeing with us, and that was certainly the case here. Besides, if there is one issue that takes precedence over all others for the Bush administration, it's the Global War on Terror. GWB knows that success or failure in this area will be what defines the success or failure of his entire presidency. If this is really as stupid as it seems, how could it have gotten beyond the initial discussions?

Of course there are arguments for allowing the sale to go through. One of the best, but least often heard, is that owners of property (the current port management company) do and should have the rights to sell that property, if "ownership" has any meaning. Americans and American companies buy up foreign companies and properties every day, and we look (are) hypocritical or foolish if we have a cow when a foreign company does the same in the US. The US port management operation is just a small part of the $6.8 billion purchase of the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co. The company is based in London and operates in 18 countries.

Much was made of the UAE's pre-9/11 role as a financial conduit for al-Qaeda and of its recognition of the Taliban government. But that was then, and now it's today. Since then, the UAE have proved their reliablity as an ally against the terrorists. The UAE is also relatively free, and about 40% of the supplies headed for Iraq pass through ports in the UAE. Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal elaborates:
An alternative way of looking at the Dubai Ports World decision is that it finally binds an Arab nation to our side in the war on terror and that it represents a recognition by some Arab elites that their self-interest coincides with ours. Dubai was already cooperating in tracing and identifying al Qaeda's financial flows. Presumably they are in the port-management business for the money. Now you may disagree with this, but there is at least an upside and downside here worth weighing. No chance of that now. The press yesterday clearly set the chalk lines for public discussion on the ports: The only issue now is whether the White House caves to "bipartisan pressure."
Henninger compares today's political and opinion leaders to Yosemite Sam, the character from Bugs Bunny cartoons who would start shooting wildly in every direction at the drop of a hat. It's an apt comparison here. This "ready, fire, aim" approach is corrosive to our political process, and it's certainly not conducive to good decision-making by our government. Henninger continues:
It has been a truism for a century that press stereotypes set the tone of many public events. We used to call this the conventional wisdom; now it's a "narrative." By and large it's a neutral phenomenon. But in our jacked-up media age, first impressions--false or true--becomes powerful and hard to alter. Surely this is one reason Vice President Cheney's office resisted "releasing" the shooting incident into the media ozone.

Our political elites, rather than recognize they are playing with a new kind of fire, instead have become pyromaniacs, lighting the fires. New Orleans even now can't get out from under the initial crazy statements the pols were hurling over Katrina. Our politicians seem to have arrived at the conclusion that they somehow no longer bear responsibility for what they say, or that there is no consequence to what they say. But they do and there is. Yosemite Sam was a cartoon. The ability of government to function in a dangerous world is not.
Henninger reminds us that Sen. John McCain, to his credit, was one of the few who called for learning the facts before jumping to convulsions. We note that Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel also deserves some praise on this score: On other matters, Hagel said this week's furor over the Bush administration plan to allow the United Arab Emirates' state-owned Dubai Ports World to manage a number of major U.S. ports "risks a very dangerous backlash in the Arab world." The Arab world "could see America as anti-Arab," he said. Much of the political rhetoric here clearly fuels that impression, he said.

"This has been blown totally out of proportion," Hagel said. "It never was an issue about security. This is a port management company." Port security remains in the hands of the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Customs Service and law enforcement agencies, he said.

The UAE, Hagel said, is "one of America's strongest supporters" in the Middle East. "Gulf states house our military bases. They finance a lot of our national debt."
We'd have liked these quotes even better had Sen. Hagel stopped there and simply called on everyone to calm down. Instead he added a few barbs, largely blaming the Adminstration for the furor. Hint for Sen. Hagel: Very few Republican votes will be won currying favor with the New York Times by trashing Republicans. You need Republican votes to stay in the Senate, let alone move on to a presidential nomination.

So we've now turned around completely on this issue. We not only see how this purchase could be allowed, we support allowing it. This opinion shift is relatively painless, since we didn't shoot our mouth off, taking a definitive position, before hearing the facts. Maybe this approach will catch on.

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