Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Jimmy and Me

carter Past President Jimmy Carter is a nice man. He is a thoughtful man and tries very hard to be a good man. Sadly, the thoughtful part doesn't seem to work out very well for him and most of the things he thinks are wrong. Realizing this, it always makes me nervous to find that I agree with him on a contentious issue, and it has happened again. Jimmy supports President Bush on the issue of allowing a United Arab Emirate owned company to buy the company that handles the commercial operation of six east-coast US ports -- and so do I.

Finding myself on the other side of the issue from pretty much everybody with whom I generally agree, it was something of a relief to read this editorial opinion from the Wall Street Journal that nicely outlines my position.
Some of us are scratching our heads all right, but we're wondering why Mr. Graham and others believe Dubai Ports World has been insufficiently vetted for the task at hand. So far, none of the critics have provided any evidence that the Administration hasn't done its due diligence. The deal has been blessed by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a multiagency panel that includes representatives from the departments of Treasury, Defense and Homeland Security.

Yes, some of the 9/11 hijackers were UAE citizens. But then the London subway bombings last year were perpetrated by citizens of Britain, home to the company (P&O) that currently manages the ports that Dubai Ports World would take over. Which tells us three things: First, this work is already being outsourced to "a foreign-based company"; second, discriminating against a Mideast company offers no security guarantees because attacks are sometimes homegrown; and third, Mr. Graham likes to talk first and ask questions later.

Besides, the notion that the Bush Administration is farming out port "security" to hostile Arab nations is alarmist nonsense. Dubai Ports World would be managing the commercial activities of these U.S. ports, not securing them. There's a difference. Port security falls to Coast Guard and U.S. Customs officials. "Nothing changes with respect to security under the contract," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday. "The Coast Guard is in charge of security, not the corporation."

In a telephone interview yesterday, Kristie Clemens of U.S. Customs and Border Protection elaborated that "Customs and Border Protection has the sole responsibility for the cargo processing and cargo security, incoming and outgoing. The port authority sets the guidelines for the entire port, and port operators have to follow those guidelines." Again, nothing in the pending deal would affect that arrangement.
This issue offers the politicians in Congress an irresistable opportunity to appear hawkish on the War on Terror by demanding that nothing whatsoever be done about it. By giving the impression that port security is the responsibility of the private company running the Port Authority, and not of the Customs Agency and the Coast Guard, they can make political capital without the painful outlay of financial capital that would be involved in properly financing the agencies actually charged to do the job. If anything, having the UAE company running the port may make us safer by making it clear to the voting public that port security is the job of the US government and not of the contractor running the port.

And what is more disappointing is that opinion leaders who like to talk endlessly about finding ways to build relationships with the moderates in the Arab world, when faced with an actual opportunity to do so in a way that represents real cooperation and an element of trust, are leading the xenophobic charge. Confronted with organization of Arab businessmen, many of the usual UN-apologist, internationalist-leaning pols have constructed efigies of Jihadist madmen and are carrying them flaming up and down the halls of Congress.

There has been quite a bit of discussion -- rather too much, actually, some of it here -- about the damage that the Danish Cartoons have done to relations between the West and the Islamic world. But the people who are rioting over the cartoons are already beyond the reach of any appeal we might make. People marching with signs that read "God Bless Hitler" are not likely to be among the "moderates" to whom we seek to reach out. I have heard it said that President Bush has made a political blunder with his support for the ports deal. Perhaps he has made a domestic political blunder but, I would argue, he has done so to avoid the major geopolitical blunder of telling one of our best allies in the Arab world that, despite what we say when we are asking them for things, we don't trust them enough to do business with them.

At least that's how I see it. Me and Jimmy, God help me.

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