Monday, February 27, 2006

Any Port In A Storm

(Photo is the port of Baltimore, one of six that Dubai Ports World will oversee. - S. Sam)

It's been about a week and a half now since the Dubai Ports World story broke, and I think I've finally been able to marshal my thoughts on this issue. For those of you unfamiliar, essentially what is going to happen is that Dubai Ports World, a port management firm owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates, is purchasing a British company called PO, PLC, which operates docks at six of our major ports. They own and operate the equipment which loads and unloads freight containers and, in several ports, could be indirectly involved with port security, though the Coast Guard is actually the main handler U.S. port security.

There are several big concerns about this deal, some of which are more serious than others. First, Dubai Ports World is owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates, one of the few governments that actually recognized the Taliban as legitimate and the nation from which 2 of the Al-Qaida 9/11 hijackers came. It's a hereditary oligarchy not a liberal democracy and one with past ties to both the Taliban and Al-Qaida. Photos and articles have been widely circulated on the internets of UAE royal family members spending time with Osama bin Ladin. On it's face, both of these would seem to present some interesting conflicts of interest with Bush's "War on Terror".

Molly Ivins makes the point very well:

We have already been warned that, should we back out of the DP deal, the United Arab Emirates may well take offense and not be so nice about helping us in the War on Terra -- maybe even cut back its money, as well as its cooperation. This is a problem specific to the fact that we are dealing with a corporation owned by a country: A corporation only wants to make money, a corporation owned by a country has lots of motives.

Second, this is a corporation, consequently its only interest is in making money. A corporation is like a shark, designed to do two things: kill and eat. Thousands of years of evolution lie behind the shark, where as the corporation has only a few hundred. But it is still perfectly evolved for its purpose. That means a corporation that makes money running port facilities does not have a stake in national security.

Normally, state-owned businesses are anathema to the holy faith of the Free Market practiced by most Republicans. While the interests of corporations tend to stay fairly constant, the interests of the state can change dramatically. On its face, having a UAE owned company running certain ports does not necessarily indicate a security risk, or at least no greater risk than our ports already are. Dubai seeks to become the new New York, a leader in international commerce, and nothing ruins that reputation faster than corporate instability and ties to terrorism. It seems unlikely that DP World would allow any activity that might damage its reputation in the business world, which is really the only world that Bush and his cronies actually care about. Ideology is for the little people. The big money Republicans want access to global markets, especially very wealthy ones like Dubai.

The political aspect of this is actually even more fascinating. It's become the first issue of Bush's reign that has really split the White House from its Republican sycophants in Congress. It has also spawned one of the most Orwellian quotes yet from Fearless Leader:

"I want those who are questioning it to step up and explain why all of a sudden a Middle Eastern company is held to a different standard than a Great British company. I'm trying to conduct foreign policy now by saying to the people of the world, we'll treat you fairly."

This is just breathtaking in its hypocrisy! The same George W. Bush that has sought to demonize Arab nations and people of all stripes since 9/11 now has the gall to sound petulant when Congress actually does the same? Bush accusing others of racism is rich. Just ask the folks at the NAACP or those failed by FEMA about how compassionate George W. Bush is about their race. For that matter, why not ask the people of Iraq (or the Palestinian Territories) if Bush's overflowing compassion for Arabs keeps them warm at night. Oh, wait, they're not rich Arabs like the Emirates and the Saudis...

Of course, I don't believe the outrage in Congress for one minute. The Republicans are sensing an opportunity to put some distance between themselves and an unpopular President, while playing to the racist rubes that make up some of the Republican base. The Democrats are taking advantage of an easy opportunity to do political damage to the President in an election year by hoisting him on his own petard. Personally, I see this as more evidence of what constituency Bush really represents: Free Market capitalists. It's always fun for election purposes to fire up the religious fundamentalists with God, gays and abortion. But it's the moneyed interests on Wall Street that fund the Republican political machine.

I foresee this deal going through and really not being an issue by next year. Port security in the United States is largely a myth and while it's yet another serious national security issue where Bush has dropped the ball, the involvement of DP World is not likely to up the threat ante much. The lingering issue will be the political reaction and the reality of a United States where commerce trumps all other concerns. Bush implying that those opposed to this deal are closet racists may be true on his side of the aisle, but many of the concerns by security experts about Dubai's ties to Al-Qaida and the Taliban are legitimate. I suspect, however, that the biggest concern for the ruler of Dubai, similar to the ruler of Washington, is the almighty dollar. Neither seems likely to jeopardize the security of that.

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