Bush's Response To the Ports Deal Faulted as Tardy

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) denounced the deal to let a Middle Eastern firm take over operations at six U.S. ports.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) denounced the deal to let a Middle Eastern firm take over operations at six U.S. ports. (By Luis M. Alvarez -- Associated Press)
By Jim VandeHei and Paul Blustein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 26, 2006

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, an outspoken liberal Democrat from New York, two weeks ago began publicly denouncing a deal to let a Middle Eastern firm take over terminal operations at six U.S. seaports. From the other end of the political spectrum, even more outspoken conservative radio host Michael Savage was doing the same -- and recruiting Republican lawmakers to his cause.

To anyone listening, it was clear that President Bush had a problem on his hands. But Bush was not listening. And his political team had its attention elsewhere. By the time they noticed, Bush's problem had grown a lot bigger.

A behind-the-scenes reconstruction of the ports deal's rapid evolution from obscurity to uproar shows how Bush was blindsided by the same emotion-laden politics of terrorism that he used to win elections in 2002 and 2004. It also raises anew questions of why the White House message machine, so sharply effective in the first term, seemingly has gone dull in the second.

It was on Feb. 13 that the Dubai Ports World deal -- after simmering unnoticed for months in the federal bureaucracy and the transportation trade press -- started to boil, as a result of Savage's blustery on-air alarms and an event by Schumer at the New York harbor with families who lost loved ones on Sept. 11, 2001.

It was not until Feb. 16 that Bush was informed by aides of the controversy -- and that his own administration had approved the port deal a month earlier. It was not until five days after that, on Feb. 21, that Bush spoke up in support of the port deal. By then, dozens of prominent lawmakers in both parties had joined Savage and Schumer in questioning the president's commitment to national security.

The consequences go well beyond political damage to Bush. Relations with the moderate Arab world may suffer as suspicions raised by lawmakers about a Middle Eastern company are now making headlines around the world. Congress is poised to rewrite the rules governing foreign investment, and possibly scuttle the deal altogether.

For a while, the effort by a major port operator based in the United Arab Emirates to take over U.S. operations of a British firm moved through government in a familiar manner. Investments that raise security concerns face scrutiny by a secretive interagency panel, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), consisting of 12 departments and agencies, which can either approve or reject transactions or insist on changes in the terms. People familiar with the process say the committee's deliberations rarely involve top White House officials or command the president's attention, and they did not in this case.

At the same time, White House officials well know that potentially explosive issues are regularly churning through the federal bureaucracy. An effective operation seeks to identify and respond to such matters before they become political problems. That plainly did not happen here, as even White House officials acknowledge.

The political breakdown was partly a matter of timing. The controversy started to build when Bush's top aides were consumed with the fallout of Vice President Cheney's recent hunting accident.

Some Republicans, however, think the episode highlights a structural problem: Without Bush's own reelection to worry about, White House aides are less alert to the political implications of fast-moving issues or unexpected events. Compounding problems, White House staffers have seemed exhausted in general for much of the year, according to people in close contact with them.

"My sense is the people who are over there now are working with a very pronounced double-edged sword: they have been there from the beginning, they are experienced, knowledgeable and they know how things work and to get things done -- but they are tired," said former Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer.

Senior White House aides concede their tardy response but faulted Cabinet officials for failing to alert the White House to the potential controversy.

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