March 23, 2006

Re-Examining the Dubai Port (non)Deal

Marc Comtois

Now that the hyperbolic rhetoric surrounding the Dubai Port deal has reduced a bit, it's time to look at the consequences of this little exercise in political gamesmanship. In a recent issue of Newsweek, Robert Samuelson recently explained the nature and effect of the politicization of the port deal:

The idea of letting an Arab-owned company, Dubai Ports World, run container terminals at five U.S. ports struck many Americans as an absurdity. Why not just turn control directly over to Al Qaeda?. . . The company's withdrawal last week can be seen as a triumph of public opinion. Or it can be acknowledged for what it is: a major defeat for the United States, driven by self-indulgent politicians of both parties who enthusiastically fanned public fears.

Leadership in a democratic society requires a willingness and ability to challenge and change public opinion when it is based on misinformation, no information, prejudice or stupidity—as it was in this case. There never was a genuine security problem. The Dubai company wouldn't have "taken over" the U.S. ports. It simply would have run some terminals. Cargo would still have been handled by American, unionized longshoremen. The Coast Guard and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency would still have been responsible for port security. . .

As political theater, the posturing might be harmless. But all the grandstanding—precisely because the criticisms were overblown—damages American interests. It's a public-relations disaster in the Middle East. The United Arab Emirates—of which Dubai is a part—has been a strong American ally, permitting the use of its ports and airfields for U.S. ships and military aircraft. . .If this isn't what we want from Arab countries, what do we want? Much bitterness is reported in Dubai, especially among those who are pro-Western. They blame racism. That's understandable and perhaps correct. . .

Every country has the right to protect its security interests. But those interests must be defined coherently and not simply as the random expression of political expediency.

Bernard Kerik echoes Samuelson and believes that the rejection of the deal will hurt U.S. port security in the long run.
"For four years we have been trying to tell the Arabs that we are not anti-Arab, we are anti-fundamentalist," said Bernard Kerik, the former New York Police Department commissioner who oversaw rescue efforts after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Kerik...said Arab countries were as much a target of al Qaeda as was the United States, and should be embraced as allies, not turned into foes.

"I think they (U.S. Congress) hurt our relationships with people that we are trying to get communication and coordination from," Kerik told a maritime security conference in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Kerik said Arab nations' sympathy for the United States could well be in doubt.

"We the United States were looking at all the Arab countries we possibly could to be our partners in the war on terrorism, including Dubai. I got no doubt about what they're thinking now. It's pretty insulting," he told Reuters in a later interview.

But it's more than U.S. security that could suffer. Samuelson also notes that there could be a significant negative economic impact:
The ports furor also hurts the United States in another way. It weakens confidence in the dollar as the major global currency. The U.S. trade deficit now spews more than $700 billion into the world annually. To some extent, global economic stability depends on foreigners' keeping most of those dollars. Mass dollar sales could trigger turmoil on the world's currency, stock and bond markets. People outside the United States hold dollars because they believe the currency maintains its value and offers a wide menu of investment choices. The message from Congress is that the menu is shorter than people thought. Once any investment is stigmatized—rightly or wrongly—as a "security problem," Congress may act against foreigners.
Indeed, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, a Republican from California, seems to be looking in that direction. Perhaps the ProJos David A. Mittell, Jr. has it right by offering that the port fiasco is really a different sort of McCarthysim:
Hollywood is still looking for McCarthyism, but won't find it where it found it 55 years ago. But we may find McCarthyism in mutated form if we look for distinguishing characteristics: 1) A legitimate fear about a threat to the nation. 2) A degree of public hysteria. 3) Charges by demagogic politicians loosely based on guilt by association. 4) A self-serving rush by the rank and file of both political parties to fall into line with the demagoguery and hysteria.

Each of these was present 55 years ago, and each was present three weeks ago in the frenzy to reverse the purchase of six U.S. port facilities by the United Arab Emirates -- a faithful American ally in the war on terrorism.

"Two of the 9/11 conspirators came from there" was the best the demagogues could say. The answer to that is that two of the Oklahoma City bombing conspirators came from the United States.

I just think that too many sought to make political hay over this whole mess, got caught up in emotionalism and threw logic out the window. We're in a global economy. And our success in both foreign and economic policy is symbiotic. It is true that we do need to use the Big Stick every now and then, but we can also benefit from the use of a bunch of carrots now and again, too. Maybe cooler heads will prevail next time. (If your interested in more frequent coverage on these sorts of issues, I'd recommend the Port Security, Maritime Security, and Homeland Security Blog).