Monday, March 13, 2006


By William Fisher

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- For those who enjoy the political theater of the absurd, the Dubai Ports World soap opera was the only show in town last week.

And it was a hoot! The actors came straight out of Central Casting.

Here was George W. Bush admitting he knew nothing about the deal, but vowing resolutely to defend it to the death in the interest of national security. The United Arab Emirates were among our most steadfast allies in the “Global War on Terrorism”.

Quickly appeared the Majority Leader of Senate Republicans and presidential hopeful, Dr. Bill Frist, doing another drive-by Terry Schiavo diagnosis and quickly rushing to distance himself from his poll-challenged president, only to flip-flop the next day in favor of a 45-day ‘national security investigation’.

Enter Senator Hillary Clinton and her senior partner, Senator Chuck Schumer, racing to get to the right of George W. Bush to prove that the Dems are really hawkish on national security. Pushing to ban any foreign “government-owned” company from “buying” any American seaport, ever. Especially a country that sent us two of the 9/11 hijackers and used their banks to launder money to help terrorists.

Then there were those courageous Republicans across the Capitol in the House of Representatives, all up for reelection in November, all terrified by being led by an unpopular second-term president, virtually all voting in lockstep to kill the ports deal – and, at the same time, putting as much daylight as possible between their stumbling selves and their stumbling Dubya and, as a bonus, inflicting a bit of ego-flexing payback to the commander-in-chief who ignored them for six years.

It’s an old adage in Washington that the most dangerous place to be is between a politician and his microphone. And our always-patriotic lawmakers lost no time in using their mikes to whip up a toxic cocktail of misinformation to get their constituents drunk with jingoistic paranoia.

A project in which they were immeasurably helped by “The media”, which ran story after clueless story about this government-run Arab company “buying” our ports.

Small wonder then that, outside the Beltway, the people of America stopped watching The Simpsons long enough to rise up to speak with a single shrill voice: “No foreigners (read Arabs) running our ports!”

Not to worry that most of “the people” had never heard of the United Arab Emirates, couldn’t find Dubai on a map, and had not the slightest clue that most of America’s seaport terminals are already managed by foreign companies – including the largest, Long Beach, California, run by a company owned by our great friend and staunch ally, the Government of China.

It’s consoling to know that the people had so much in common with the Congress. And with the media.

Doubtless with a little friendly arm-twisting from Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condi Rice, and the venerable Senator John Warner of the Armed Services Committee, Dubai Ports World threw in their keffiyehs. They announced they would sell their U.S. port assets to “a U.S. entity” (providing they could avoid taking a financial bath in the process).

We still don’t know precisely what this means, but that’s OK; that’s the least we don’t know.

Among the unanswered questions:

If, as has been widely reported, there is only one U.S.-owned port management company, and it’s too small to take on the Dubai Ports World job, who’s going to run these port terminals?

If the Coast Guard and our Customs folks are ultimately responsible for port security, does it really matter who runs the terminals?

What, if anything, is wrong with the Treasury-led inter-agency review process that approved the UAE deal without telling the President, anyone in the Cabinet, or anyone in the Congress -- and what’s going to be done to fix it?

How is our public diplomacy maven, the culturally-challenged Karen Hughes, going to ‘win the hearts and minds’ of all those who think we’re doing a little unsubtle ethnic profiling of all things Arab?

And, most importantly, what exactly has our wildly dysfunctional Department of Homeland Security been doing to strengthen our seaport security? And at what cost?

These are serious questions. But don’t expect serious answers. It’s an election year.

Call Central Casting.

* With apologies to Edgar Allen Poe for playing with his words (Quoth the Raven Nevermore) in his poem, “The Raven”.