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Pundit Roundtable

Greetings! Welcome back to PUNDIT ROUNDTABLE. I am your host, Ken McCracken. Well, it seems we have gotten beyond trivial issues such as quail hunting accidents, and on to a real, meaty issue, as put to our pundits this week in the form of this question:

Where do you stand on the issue of letting a Dubai company run American ports? Has your view changed since you first heard about the story? What do you make of the fact that George W. Bush did not know about this deal until it broke in the news?

Our first guest is Roundtable newcomer Mick Wright of Fishkite. What are your views on this Mick?

There's a reason John Kerry mentioned port security in each of the three presidential debates in 2004, and it isn't because they are the central fronts of the war on terror. Guarding our ports is no more important than protecting our borders to the north and south, enforcing our immigration laws or keeping the rest of our infrastructure secure.

In fact, when Kerry argued, "[y]ou have to close the borders," he wasn't talking about America but rather Iraq. Kerry made a point to discuss Iraq's border security in each of the debates, but only once did he happen mention our own borders, and that came only in direct response to a question about immigration in the third and final debate.

Port security was and is a disproportionally important issue for John Kerry and the Democrats because it's one area where no level of protection can ever be proved sufficient. Considering America's powerful role in the global marketplace, no administration could possibly allocate enough resources to completely inspect every item, every box, every shipment passing through our airports, seaports, railways and roadways without crippling our economy and slowing international trade to a grinding halt. Adopting Kerry's "plan" would require ever-expanding big government measures and dramatically increased spending, but it would never be enough to guarantee our safety.

But even if we could spend enough on the ports, how much emphasis should we put on securing them when thousands of other weaknesses could just as easily be exploited, when "an advanced grad student" could unleash a biological weapon using little more than standard lab equipment, when the economics of terrorism is far more agile than the economics of security, and when a small group of terrorists with the right access could bring a lumbering regional bureaucracy to its knees?

Of course, prudent security measures can and must be implemented in each of these areas, but President Bush rightfully acknowledged the futility of trying to fight the war on terror from a defensive posture. Instead, he drafted a grand strategery -- we would fight the terrorists on their own turf as much as possible, shut down their financial networks, tap into their intelligence and, most important of all, fan the flames of democracy in the Middle East so that people in the region would join the rest of the world in freedom and in peace.

If he ever understood that proactive strategery, Kerry certainly never adopted it. And when port security returned to the headlines this week, you have to assume half the Democratic press releases had already been written. In other words, it wasn't a big surprise when the otherwise diversity-sensitive, U.N.-happy liberals objected to the UAE company's proposed acquisition, which would give it management of terminal operations at five U.S. ports.

What may have come as a bigger surprise was how quickly some of the administration's most reliable national security advocates took exception to the proposed deal. On the other hand, I would have been worried if such people didn't have an initially negative gut reaction the idea that an Arab-owned company would acquire such an important slice of the operational pie.

Should we be worried that turning our ports over to Dubai may compromise our national security? Yes, I think we should. But probably not moreso than we should worry about terrorists slipping into the ranks of a British company, or an American one, and no moreso than we should worry about any other number of potential terrorist plots.

As the President argued during the debates, in the half-charming, half-awkward way only he can, "we have to be right 100 percent of the time. And the enemy only has to be right once to hurt us."

An alarming Drudge headline reads, "Homeland Security Protested Ports Deal," but the article goes on to report that the DHS's early objections were settled later in the government's review of the proposal. Even though these objections were smoothed over, you might think that word of this pending deal would have been important enough to have required the President's attention. On the other hand, one of the oft-touted strengths of the Bush administration is its decentralization; the President trusts the people he has appointed, and that quality has generally served him well.

But the most profound exception to that rule has been the President's PR team, if in fact such a creature exists. A stronger, steadier, speedier public relations effort has always been one element most conspicuously lacking in the administration. In this information age, better PR could have taken the edge off the disappointing intelligence shortfall, the war in Iraq, the Katrina disaster and any number of "-gates" that besiege(d) the White House.

To that most bloggers will attest, but I have yet to see anyone point to one member of the administration who should take the fall for this PR deficit. I think there is one such person; I blame Vice President Cheney.

Who but Cheney could have been the President's advocate in the Senate while his judicial nominees whithered on the vine? Who else should have been rallying the nation to the President's side on the war on terror, rather than continue to hide out in his undisclosed location(s)? Who else could have been on the ground representing the White House and directing Katrina relief efforts, rather than sending FEMA's sacrificial lamb? And who could have been out in front on this port issue if not Dick Cheney, who happened to be... at the hospital bedside of his friend, after shooting him in the face?

Of course, I don't blame the Vice President for that last mishap, but I do think he deserves the brunt of the criticism for failing to respond quickly afterwards, just as he's failed to respond appropriately in each of these other situations. An immediate veto threat was certainly not the way to go; the Vice President should have been fully briefed on this deal and should have been its main advocate. If he had been doing his job, Cheney would have been in the Senate herding those cats, as even Majority Leader Frist strayed from the reservation.

Why is port security still an issue? That's a good question for the Vice President, if you can find him.

Our next guest is a returning pundit, Dr. Steven Taylor of PoliBlog. Steven?
I haven’t written all that much on the ports issues that has been a headline topic for the last week or so. Still, I have paid attention to it from the beginning and have given it some thought.

My initial reaction was that while I could understand why there would be questions about a state-owned firm from the UAE being engaged in US ports, that the overall reaction to the situation by some members of Congress, and then some members of the chattering class (especially some bloggers and talk radio types) was well overblown. I do think that there was some Arab-specific xenophobia underlying some of the reactions.

Now, the fact that two of the hijackers were from the UAE was an understandable emotional red flag, but it seems ludicrous to use that as a method of judging this situation. And yes, I am aware of the fact that UAE recognized the Taliban and that there has been considerable money laundering associated with terrorism in the region. All of these things seem to signal the need for reflection on the situation, not hysterical over-reaction.

Both the press and the various overreacting politicos also fed the hysteria because it was clear from the early coverage that no one really knew what this company was going to be doing—indeed, the initial discussion made it sound as if they would be buying and wholly controlling the actual ports, rather than managing an aspect of the port’s operation. As such, the lack of good information on how ports work was missing from the story from the beginning.

The commensurate response from the White House was quite ham-handed, and instead of quelling the rising cacophony of complaints simply escalated it. Regardless of any other factors, it should have been obvious that the granting of the contract to a state-owned company from an Arab state was going to raise concerns. As such, the administration should have been ready with answers. The fact that no one seemed to think of this ahead of time is remarkable, and speaks poorly of everyone who worked on the project.

That the President’s initial reaction was also one of public stubbornness was no helpful, and reinforces the notion that the administration’s first response is to share information, but to dig in heels.

In regards to when the President knew of the deal—I was not especially surprised that the President of the United States was not involved in such a matter, which strikes me as relatively routine aside from the Arab factor. However, I remain surprised as to the strong nature of his response to the press and the Congress (threatening his first veto right out of the gate) given that he had only just learned of the situation.

My view remains that this is largely much ado about nothing, and the more I learn, the more that view is reinforced. However, I do not see any problem with a delay, including making sure that the proper review of the proposal was completed.

Here are some of my previous posts on the subject:

Next we have newcomer and regular WILLisms.com commentor KipEsquire. What do you say Kip?
Before I state my position, let me answer Ken's two latter questions first. I think the recent revelation that the Department of Homeland Security "voted against the deal before they voted for it" may be the death knell for this transaction. Regarding the question of whether security is really an issue, it's hard to deny now that there is a "there" there. As for the President's lack of direct knowledge, to me that seems more of a political guffaw than a policy error — I don't expect a president to be "in the loop" on everything.

I oppose the transaction for a very simple reason. We should not be doing port business with the UAE government because we shouldn't be doing any business with the UAE government.

As I demonstrated at my blog, the UAE has one of the worst human rights records in the Middle East — and that's saying a lot.

On Friday, President Bush said the following in response to the despicable destruction of a holy site in Iraq:

Democracy takes different forms in different cultures. Yet, all cultures, in order to be successful, have certain common truths, universal truths: rule of law, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, a free economy, freedom of women, and the freedom to worship. Societies that lay these foundations not only survive, but they thrive. Societies that don't lay these foundations risk backsliding into tyranny.

Democracy, free and fair elections, purples fingers — all very nice and inspirational indeed. Except in the UAE, which has no elections of any kind. None. Zero.

Freedom of women — except in the UAE, where women cannot leave the country without their husband's permission. Men can have multiple spouses in the UAE, but women can't. UAE citizenship is determined by the citizenship of the father alone and not the mother. A Muslim man in the UAE can marry a non-Muslim, but a Muslim woman cannot. A woman who becomes pregnant in the UAE out of wedlock can be flogged.

Freedom to worship — except in the UAE, where Sharia courts enforce Islamic law. In the UAE, it is a crime to attempt to convert a Muslim.

Freedom of speech — except in the UAE, where the government censors both the news and cultural media. Brokeback Mountain is banned in the UAE.

Freedom of assembly — except in the UAE, which refuses to recognize any local human rights organizations.

Rule of law — except in the UAE, where, for instance, gay sex is punishable by death.

The Bush Administration tries to counter the UAE's horrific regime with a succinct bullet point: "They are an ally in the War on Terror."

So what?

First of all, isn't the concept of "probation" appropriate in global relations? It's been less than five years since September 11th, and the UAE had blood on its hands that day. Is it really inappropriate to say, "Yes, we're thrilled that you've reformed and atoned for your sins, but for now we'd still like our port terminals to be run by companies and 'allies' that have a slightly better track record. Check back with us in a decade or two..."?

It is not "Islamaphobic" to mistrust people who have so recently and so proximately caused us to be mistrustful. Facts are never "racist." The UAE is a despicable country run by despicable people who would, were it not for oil, be treated on a par with Cuba, Cote d'Ivoire or Burma. We are not required to add insult to injury, even when doing so poses no threat to homeland security.

A generation ago, the United States propped up countless dictators — including Saddam Hussein — and their oppressive regimes because they were "allies in the Cold War." Do we really want to make that same mistake by embracing any and all regimes, no matter how badly they behave, simply because they are "allies in the War on Terror"?

That is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition.

If the UAE's autocrats are so intent of this deal going through, then the answer is simple: divest Dubai Ports World — which, remember, is a socialist enterprise and not "just another global competitor." The best way to salvage a tainted transaction is by removing the taint.

The Host's Last Word: This is difficult issue to parse in my view, because there are excellent arguments on both sides of this question. My initial reaction was skepticism that this is a good idea, but now I think the risks to national security are not really that great here as long as the United States retains full and complete control over security at the ports. The ports are our most important entry into the nation, more important than the border with Mexico or our airports, because the ports are where the really really dangerous stuff such as dirty bombs, chemical weapons and *god forbid* nukes would get into this country - these items are probably just too bulky to enter the U.S. through any vector other than containerized traffic. But, because of the critical nature of these ports, our security should be top-notch and a top priority regardless of who runs the ports. It shouldn't matter if it is an Arab firm, a Dutch firm or a Japanese firm running it - these facilities need to be tight as a drum.

I just don't think there is any greater security risk from having an Arab firm run these terminals, because I don't believe al-Qaeda will be able to get its hands on the mechanisms that would allow access. But I think it is profoundly unfair to label those that think there is a greater risk 'islamaphobes' or 'racists' - because as Kip points out facts are not 'racist', and the fears associated with the UAE running these terminals are quite reasonable ones. I just don't happen to share them.

We need to engage rather than isolate Middle Eastern nations that are in any way disposed towards us in a kindly way, and the UAE has been a brave and staunch ally. This is a way to draw them closer to being the democratic and open society we want them to be. Shunning them at this point threatens to push them into the other camp.

Finally, I do not expect the President to be on top of each and every issue such as this because, well, the man has a lot on his plate. But you bet he is on top of it now! Having the President say that he knew nothing of this deal until he read about it in the papers was an oddly refreshing sort of admission.

Thanks for coming by folks, and come again next Sunday for our next edition of PUNDIT ROUNDTABLE!

Posted by Ken McCracken · 26 February 2006 01:13 PM


Nice stuff. Way more reasonable than what the talking heads have been spouting the past couple of weeks.

Posted by: Will Franklin at February 26, 2006 02:45 PM

Kip sure doesn't sugar coat it...I was just starting to get compfortable with the idea. BUT, now??? Yikes!

Posted by: Zsa Zsa at February 26, 2006 05:43 PM

Mick, how long have you felt this way about our VP?

Posted by: John Farmer at February 26, 2006 07:53 PM

This is latest in Bush's disasterous presidency. It's not surprising that the same idiot who blundered the United States into a quaqmire in Iraq, is the same fool who wants to outsource the management of our ports to some Arab shieks, with some excess petro-dollars they need to get rid of.

Typically, all but one of the bloggers in the roundtable, are poo-poo-ing the entire thing as something made up by the Democrats, that should have been handled by a some more adept PR.

I'm not sure where you guys were when Clinton was outsourcing port management to the Communist Chinese, but I can tell you that a significant number of folks who voted for Bush2, didn't expect him to the continue the same sort of pea-brained liberal policies of selling out the United States to the highest bidder.

Of course, the entire utopian fantasy of 'globalization' isn't working. Supposedly, the Ayn Rand Cult Leader, Alan Greenpan types tell us that the dollars we spend for oil is supposed to come back to the USA to purchase American products and services, thereby giving us jobs.

Instead the bloody truth is these dollars are coming back to buy American assets.

We can hardly deny the Arab sheiks anything they might want can we? Because if we tell the sheiks that they are supposed to buy American PRODUCTS like the free market fundamentalism preaches, well they might reply "Screw You", and maybe decide not to deal in US dollars anymore.

And if the sheiks start dealing in Euros or Yen, and the US dollar loses it's position as the reserve currency for world trade, the entire house of cards that Alan Greenspan, the Ayn Rand Cult leader, has built will fall apart.

Yes, go right head boys, and "spin" the latest bumbling screwup away, but I think this issue is waking up a lot the Bubbas who provided Bush2 his relatively slender victory in '04.

And perhaps they'll discover that this cowboy-in-drag you've selected as your hero is not the regular guy they thought was, and he's just another blue-blood liberal, selling out the American Dream to Wall Street and the super-rich.

And stay home election day. We'll see how you'll blog that sorry fact away.

Posted by: David at February 26, 2006 11:42 PM

Hey, Ken, I think you have a new candidate for a future Pundit Roundtable here. You might want to have some napkins handy, though; it looks like David has a bit of frothing problem...


Posted by: Jay Tea at February 27, 2006 12:03 AM

Hey, I don't agree with what he says, but I like his style.

I just might give you an invite in the future David!

Posted by: Ken McCracken at February 27, 2006 12:43 AM

I don't like the "because of Human Rights violations" angle to things simply because despite our role in the world as a whole, China, Pakistan, and most of Africa have absolutely atrocious human rights records. Most of the Middle East has human rights issues. These are issue for the UN to resolve.

Here is the deal--Our US companies make hundreds of billions of dollars by operating their companies in other countries and selling US goods and Services or managing foreign operations. We operate most of the oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and most of the Middle East. So these countries allow the infidels that violate Shari'ah Law to run businesses on their soil, but in turn we agree to do our best to honor their wishes and not cause problems.

Why is it OK for US companies to do business in these countries? Why is it OK for Cisco or Dell or IBM or Caterpiller or Boeing or Haliburton or Walmart to operate and sell goods and services to these countries if they have human rights violations?

The ports would be managed by US managers, not by folks in Dubai. They would be managed for the most part locally and I don't think that every dock worker from now on would be named Mohammed or Akmed or Osama. We can discriminate on which companies we allow to manage ports in the US, but cannot discriminate against individual passengers of Arab descent on our Airline screening? Last I checked, the 9-11 hijackers were 18-40 year old Arab Males from high risk countries, not multinational shipping conglomerates under US Management.

This is all about political correctness and pandering to voters. The Dems were the ones saying Bush loves to "scare us" during the last election. Funny how fear works in their favor too. This is part of the far left's policy to try to overturn NAFTA and other global treaties, the WTO, and the World Bank. They cannot destroy NAFTA, but they sure can chip away at any globalization boogie man possible.

Posted by: Justin B at February 27, 2006 10:47 AM