Port Security Humbug

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

YOU KNOW THERE'S something suspicious going on when multiple members of Congress -- House, Senate, Democrat, Republican, future presidential candidates of all stripes -- spontaneously unite around an issue that none of them had known existed a week earlier. That appears to be what happened last weekend after politicians awoke to the fairly stale news that the London-based P&O navigation company, which has long managed the ports of New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, New Orleans, Miami and Philadelphia, had been taken over by Dubai Ports World, a company based in the United Arab Emirates. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) called the deal "tone-deaf politically at this point in our history." Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) called for the White House to put a hold on the purchase. Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) seconded him, implying that Arab owners posed a major security threat -- as did everyone from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) to Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) to Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R).

At stake -- in theory -- is the question of whether we should "outsource major port security to a foreign-based company," in the words of Mr. Graham. But those words, like that of almost all of the others, sound, well, tone-deaf to us. For one, the deal cannot "outsource major port security," because management companies that run ports do not control security. The U.S. Coast Guard controls the physical security of our ports. The U.S. Customs Service controls container security. That doesn't change, no matter who runs the business operations. Nor is it clear why Mr. Graham or anybody else should be worried about "foreign-based" companies managing U.S. ports, since P&O is a British company. And Britain, as events of the last year have illustrated, is no less likely to harbor radical Islamic terrorists than Dubai.

None of the U.S. politicians huffing and puffing seem to be aware that this deal was long in the making, that it had been reported on extensively in the financial press, and that it went through normal security clearance procedures, including approval from a foreign investment committee that contains officials from the departments of Treasury, Commerce, State and Homeland Security, among other agencies. Even more disturbing is the apparent difficulty of members of Congress in distinguishing among Arab countries. We'd like to remind them, as they've apparently forgotten, that the United Arab Emirates is a U.S. ally that has cooperated extensively with U.S. security operations in the war on terrorism, that supplied troops to the U.S.-led coalition during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and that sends humanitarian aid to Iraq. U.S. troops move freely in and out of Dubai on their way to Iraq now.

Finally, we're wondering if perhaps American politicians are having trouble understanding some of the most basic goals of contemporary U.S. foreign policy. A goal of "democracy promotion" in the Middle East, after all, is to encourage Arab countries to become economically and politically integrated with the rest of the world. What better way to do so than by encouraging Arab companies to invest in the United States? Clearly, Congress doesn't understand that basic principle, since its members prefer instead to spread prejudice and misinformation.

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