Rise by fear, fall by fear. Having deliberately nurtured a national security panic for the past four-plus years, President George W. Bush richly deserves to be trampled in its latest running: the uproar over his Administration’s decision to hand management of six US ports to a state-owned Dubai firm. Bush is cornered by his own bulls–Bill Frist and Dennis Hastert warning darkly of national security threats implied by Arab ownership of American ports, other Republicans accusing him of coddling Dubai’s state-socialist enterprise. Democrats, seeing a weakened President, pile gleefully on, but they, too, seem unconcerned about the corrosive implications of national security scares and economic xenophobia.
Although the Coast Guard reportedly warned the President that gaps in intelligence make the risks in the deal involving Dubai Ports World hard to evaluate, the question of mangement-company ownership has little to do with genuine security issues, since the ports are policed by the Guard, Customs and Homeland Security.
The more important public safety problem, as Senator Carl Levin points out with welcome sanity, is that the Administration has long treated the nation’s ports as the poor stepchild of transportation security. Of 11 million containers shipped through US ports annually, 95 percent are never inspected or opened; and since the attacks of 9/11 just $630 million has been spent on port security, compared with $18 billion for airports. Human trafficking, drugs and smuggling all flourish thanks to the lax standards of shipping ports and the scant resources made available to police them.
And foreign management of ports is nothing new. The work crews who load and unload vessels in American harbors already draw their paychecks from companies based in Singapore, Denmark, the United Kingdom, Japan and Taiwan. Is DP World more likely to support terrorism than British-owned P&O? No, and thus an unmistakable whiff of anti-Arab bigotry wafts from the argument.
So what’s really at stake? It’s another case of Democrats and Republicans alike happily promoting corporate globalism with little regard for the public interest until the implications become too embarrassing: in this case, the control of the nation’s ports being traded by transnational corporations. If Americans should revolt against the DP World contract it’s not because investors come from unpopular places like China or Dubai but for the same reasons that Bolivians revolted against Bechtel Corporation’s takeover of water utilities: because American harbors should not be just another commodity to be traded like cotton futures. Rather, they are the people’s birthright, as crucial to the transportation infrastructure and economy as highways and airports. It’s there that Congressional Democrats should be taking their stand. Yet which Democrat has the nerve to call for a public takeover of the ports?
It’s hard not to cheer as the DP World fight blows a big hole in what’s left of the Bush Administration agenda, but we must realize that by framing the Dubai deal as a national security threat, Democrats are paradoxically reinforcing Bush’s master narrative of a permanent and all-encompassing “war on terror.” They are also dangerously enhancing the equation of Islam with terrorism that Bush so deftly exploited to launch the Iraq War.
Democrats should see the panic over the DP World deal as an opportunity for a truly nervy rudder-turn–challenging the toxic premises of Bush’s national security policy and confronting the obsession with secrecy that led to the consummation of the deal out of sight of Congress. The Dubai Ports World scandal is a scandal–but mainly because it is the latest chapter in this Administration’s ongoing, sweeping betrayal of the public interest. Playing to fear is a mug’s game that only Bush can win.