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Dubai Ports World

Writing for “The Nation,” William Greider [1] has himself a good laugh about Bush’s demagoguery coming home to roost:

David Brooks, the high-minded conservative pundit, dismissed the Dubai Ports controversy as an instance of political hysteria that will soon pass. He was commenting on PBS, and I thought I heard a little quaver in his voice when he said this was no big deal. Brooks consulted “the experts,” and they assured him there’s no national security risk in a foreign company owned by Middle East Muslims–actually, by an Arab government–managing six major American ports. Cool down, people. This is how the world works in the age of globalization.

Of course, he is correct. […]

Greider concludes:

So why is the fearmonger-in-chief being so casual about this Dubai business?
Because at some level of consciousness even George Bush knows the inflated fears are bogus. So do a lot of the politicians merrily throwing spears at him. He taught them how to play this game, invented the tactics and reorganized political competition as a demagogic dance of hysterical absurdities, endless opportunities to waste public money. Very few dare to challenge the mindset. Thousands have died for it.

Unlike digby, I’d say this is only partly right. Fearmonger-in-chief: check. Many fears are bogus, inflated: check. Bush knows that at some level: check. But specific concerns about the Dubai Port deal being inflated and bogus: well… how does Greider know? How does Bush know? How do any of us know? Is it unreasonable to want to find out? Maybe Greider, Kevin Drum [2], digby [3] (“right on the money“), and others are right to think this is nothing more than political poetic justice, but I’m less sanguine about the merits of allowing the sale to go forward.

A recent Zogby/AAI poll [4]* indicates overwhelmingly negative opinions towards the United States in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where Dubai Ports World is based. Arguably deservedly so — the reasons given are American mistreatment of Arabs and the Iraq war. So I’m willing to stipulate, for the sake of argument, that 99% of Dubai Port employees and management back at the home office are superb human beings who I’d be lucky and honored to have dinner with. That still leaves awkward facts like two UAE 9/11 hijackers [5] and members of the UAE royal family reportedly [6] joining a hunting party with Bin Laden in Afghanistan back in 1999.

I’m assured, and do not doubt, that DP World [7] will have to work with U.S. customs, Coast Guard and Homeland Security officials day in, day out at these American ports. Why the latter should fill me with confidence is beyond me, but again, let’s assume everyone’s doing a heckuva job for the sake of argument.

What one still has is a company that literally has bought the keys to America’s front door, and that is based in and owned by a government and a Wahhabist aristocratic ruling class with a few strikes against it. You would think government ownership of a port facility ought to be against conservative and free-market principles, the more so when the government itself is an unaccountable family affair. But what do I know.

I’m asked to believe ownership of these port facilities would pose no additional risk to Americans. Yet ownership, at least to me, means Dubai Port board member, vice president, or upper management man X would have a substantially easier time observing customs and homeland security procedures, monitoring shipments, manipulating port records, and/or arranging physical access to these ports than he did before the sale. X and/or his angry young cousin, that is: the same AAI poll indicates people there consider nepotism the most important reason jobs are hard to find in the UAE.

But again, what do I know. Maybe “things don’t work that way”; maybe the emir of Dubai himself will not be able to pull up a chair and download the shipping records and inspection protocols for Dubai Port World’s operations in Philadelphia. Show me — and because I won’t believe you the first time, show me again and try harder.

To call that racist or “anti-Arab,” as variously Rush Limbaugh [8], Tom Friedman [9], and the Arab American Institute [10] do, is to drain that word of all meaning. There are good reasons to want to know who exactly controls Dubai Ports World, and what safeguards, if any, stand between us and a “Bin Laden II” using this company’s access to American ports to his advantage.

Writing for Wired Magazine (and excerpted [11] at his blog), security expert Bruce Schneier [12] makes sense:

Pull aside the rhetoric, and this is everyone’s point. There are those who don’t trust the Bush administration and believe its motivations are political. There are those who don’t trust the UAE because of its terrorist ties — two of the 9/11 terrorists and some of the funding for the attack came out of that country — and those who don’t trust it because of racial prejudices. There are those who don’t trust security at our nation’s ports generally and see this as just another example of the problem.

And there are those of us so far gone as to not trust the Bush administration, the UAE’s ruling class, and our nation’s port security, all at the same time. Schneier concludes:

The solution is openness. The Bush administration needs to better explain how port security works, and the decision process by which the sale of P&O was approved. If this deal doesn’t compromise security, voters — at least the particular lawmakers we trust — need to understand that.

Now that’s “right on the money.” The Bush administration has to prove it’s safe to me— the more so since they usually argue we must accept all kinds of other crimes and moral failures in the name of national security.

*AAI: Arab American Institute. 500 UAE respondents surveyed 10/18/05–10/24/05; 21% favorable to US, 73% unfavorable; 44% say nepotism is chief cause of employment difficulties in the country. MOE +/- 10%.

NOTES: Greider [3], Limbaugh [13] (actually “Seeing the Forest” cite of Limbaugh) links via “Hullabaloo.” Friedman excerpted by Atrios [9]. Zogby/AAI lead via publius (“Legal Fiction”) [14], who cites older 2004 data. Their discussions are worth reading, and I agree with much of each writer’s post.
UPDATE, 2/23: In Tapped, Yglesias [15] disputes Friedman et al’s charges of racism against those questioning the port deal, for reasons similar to mine. And a Rasmussen poll [16] shows only 17% of Americans approve of the Dubai Ports deal, while 63% disapprove. (1000 respondents, 2/22-23, MOE +/- 4%) (via Atrios [17]).