HOW HE SEES IT Port flap exposes cold political realities

The emerging conventional wisdom about Dubai Ports World is that, after a disastrous debut for the proposed deal, President Bush might yet get his way. Meanwhile, the debate should be educational for all Americans -- including Bush.
Last week, W. tried to defend the deal by arguing that the United Arab Emirates, which owns Ports World, deserves to be treated just like the United Kingdom, a laughably historical bit of political correctness. It was thus little surprise that public opinion turned against the deal: Just 17 percent of Americans supported the sale, said the Rasmussen Reports polling organization, while 64 percent opposed it. Since then, the administration has shifted to better arguments: The UAE is an important ally in the Arab world and, besides, U.S. homeland securitizers will take extra precautions to keep the ports safe. Those are reasonable arguments that deserve a fair hearing. So the next 45 days' "review" should be informative, especially if Americans come to better understand the following five points: First, all Americans, starting with Bush, should be alarmed that such an important issue was handled so sloppily. If news reports are to be believed, the president, Treasury secretary and secretary of Homeland Security all learned about the port contract approvals after the fact. Indeed, Treasury's John Snow said he read about it in the newspaper. To assure the public that such fecklessness isn't to be tolerated, some high official should be allowed, or asked, to resign. That would send a signal that those who hold high jobs are supposed actually to do them.
Second, we are all being schooled in foreign-policy realism. Since 9/11, the president has mostly expressed himself in the language of good-versus-evil morality. As he said Sept. 20, 2001, "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." Such rhetoric might have been useful in getting Americans psyched up for fighting Saddam Hussein. But, as the long war drags on, "moral clarity" has morphed into murk. So today we see that the UAE and Saudi Arabia -- which have and will continue to play footsie with Al-Qaida, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Hamas and other nogoodniks -- are our best available allies. That's the difference between realism and idealism: Idealists see the world as they wish it to be, realists as it is.
High-flying lyricism
Third, Bush's democracy-is-on-the-march speechifying is now at rest. W.'s high-flying lyricism peaked with his second inaugural address, in which he declared that the "untamed fire of freedom" would burn away tyranny everywhere. But in the past year the White House has looked the other way as Arab countries across the Mideast have suppressed democratic movements -- although not in the UAE, because there never has been any democratic movement there. And, with the UAE as a possible partner in future port security, it's a safe bet that the United States won't be encouraging elections in that country, thus risking a replay of the recent Islamist victory in the Palestinian territories. The new bottom line seems to be that undemocratic emirs make pretty good partners.
Fourth, in regard to the cold realities of this world, most Americans have only recently learned that overseas interests already control many of our ports. Foreigners own or operate a third of all U.S. port terminals. And Chinese companies -- all of which are effectively controlled by Beijing's authoritarian government -- own or operate terminals along the West Coast, in addition to running the ports at the ultra-strategic Panama Canal.
Fifth, no matter who owns the ports, the greatest concern should be cargo inspection. Estimates of how much cargo is searched vary, from 2 percent up to 6 percent. So, port ownership aside, the bigger question is whether Uncle Sam is scrutinizing nearly 9 million potentially bomb-laden containers a year.
No matter who wins the port-oversy, the American people have been given a valuable wake-up call.
Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service

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