The problem with the Bush administration's support for a move by a United Arab Emirates-based firm to take over operation of six major American ports -- as well as the shipment of military equipment through two additional ports -- is not that the corporation in question is Arab owned.
The problem is that Dubai Ports World is a corporation. It happens to be a corporation that is owned by the government of the the United Arab Emirates, or UAE, a nation that served as an operational and financial base for the hijackers who carried out the attacks of 9-11 attacks, and that has stirred broad concern. But, even if the sale of operational control of the ports to this firm did not raise security alarm bells, it would be a bad idea.
Ports are essential pieces of the infrastructure of the United States, and they are best run by public authorities that are accountable to elected officials and the people those officials represent. While traditional port authorities still exist, they are increasing marginalized as privatization schemes have allowed corporations -- often with tough anti-union attitudes and even tougher bottom lines -- to take charge of more and more of the basic operations at the nation's ports.
In the era when the federal government sees "homeland security" as a slogan rather than a responsibility, allowing the nation's working waterfronts to be run by private firms just doesn't work. It is no secret that federal authorities have failed to mandate, let alone implement, basic port security measures. But this is not merely a federal failure; it is, as well, a private-sector failure. The private firms that control so many of the nation's ports have not begun to set up a solid system for waterfront security in the more than four years since the September 11, 2001 attacks. And shifting control of the ports of New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, New Orleans, Miami and Philadelphia -- along with control over the movement of military equipment on behalf of the U.S. Army through the ports at Beaumont and Corpus Christi -- from a British firm, Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., to Dubai Ports World, is not going to improve the situation.
Unfortunately, the debate has been posed as a fight over whether Arab-owned firms should be allowed to manage ports and other strategic sites in the U.S. Media coverage of the debate sets up the increasingly ridiculous Homeland Security Secretary, Michael Chertoff -- who babbles bureaucratically about how, "We make sure there are assurances in place, in general, sufficient to satisfy us that the deal is appropriate from a national security standpoint" -- against members of Congress -- who growl, as U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-New York, did over the weekend about the need "to guard against things like infiltration by al-Qaida or someone else,"
There are two fundamental facts about corporations that put this controversy about who runs the ports in perspective.
First: Like most American firms, most Arab-owned firms are committed to making money, and the vast majority of them are not about to compromise their potential profits by throwing in with terrorists.
Second: Like most American firms, Arab-owned firms are more concerned about satisfying shareholders than anything else. As such, they are poor stewards of ports and other vital pieces of the national infrastructure that still require the constant investment of public funds, as well as responsible oversite by authorities that can see more than a bottom line, in order to maintain public safety -- not to mention the public good of modern, efficient transportation services.