How to Lose Friends

Friday, February 24, 2006

AMONG MANY other things, the president's job description requires him to keep abreast of economic and political developments around the world; respond to disasters such as Hurricane Katrina; oversee the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; appoint people to run embassies and government departments; come up with solutions to the health care crisis, the education crisis, the energy crisis; and represent the United States at major international conferences. When he does any of these tasks poorly, the American people and their politicians are well within their rights to criticize him, as we often do, too.

On the other hand, the president's job description does not include taking a personal interest in decisions about whether foreign companies based in countries that are America's allies should be allowed to purchase other foreign companies that are based in countries that are America's allies. This is particularly the case when such purchases do not have any discernible impact on American security whatsoever.

In other words, the White House's "admission" that President Bush was unaware that Dubai Ports World, a company based in the United Arab Emirates, had purchased Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., a company based in Britain -- and thereby obtained management control of the business operations of six U.S. ports -- strikes us as completely unnecessary. Why should the president know? Twelve government departments and agencies, including the departments of Treasury, State, Defense and Homeland Security, had examined the deal over a three-month period and found it acceptable. Perhaps the White House should have anticipated this week's political storm and prepared for it. But because the objections are irrational, even that complaint is questionable.

At a hearing yesterday, senators complained that they had not been notified of the transaction -- though, as Deputy Treasury Secretary Robert M. Kimmitt noted, the companies involved had issued a press release on the matter in November. Senators complained, in the face of considerable testimony to the contrary, that the government's review had been "casual" or "cursory." And, in attempting to cast aspersions on the reliability of the United Arab Emirates, they reached back to its behavior before Sept. 11, 2001 -- a standard of judging under which neither the Clinton nor Bush administrations would fare all that well.

In fact, as administration officials testified yesterday, since Sept. 11 the United Arab Emirates has been a valuable ally. Last year, according to Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon R. England, 56 U.S. warships, 590 U.S. Military Sealift Command ships and 75 allied warships were hosted in the United Arab Emirates -- at a port managed by the very same Dubai Ports World. To our knowledge, none of the objecting members of Congress have expressed alarm at the national security implications of that situation. Yet the six ports now in question will be far less dependent on Dubai's goodwill, because security there is controlled by the Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, no matter who's doing the accounting. American longshoremen will load and unload cargo, no matter who pays their salaries.

If members of Congress really want to burnish their "tough on terrorism" credentials, they should start by focusing on real presidential lapses, which are sufficient, and forget about the phony ones. As Mr. England said yesterday, the war on terrorism demands that the United States "strengthen the bonds of friendship and security . . . especially with our friends and allies in the Arab world." That means allies should be treated "equally and fairly around the world and without discrimination," he said. And he suggested that it is the terrorists who want the United States to "become distrustful, they want us to become paranoid and isolationist."

If so, they must be feeling pretty content right now.

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