Bush blooper on port security : a political hit he cannot afford?

Feb 24th, 2006 | By | Category: USA Today

The best teachers of the 1960s Ontario high-school history course on “Canada and the United States” used to joke that Canadian history was just US history 10 years late. It still seems a good enough joke in the winter of our discontent 20052006. Canada, some would say, has succumbed to the latest continental political pathology, just as the United States is starting to recover. Nothing in politics is  certain. But at the end of February 2006 there appear to be a few reasons for the diverse legions of progress to hope for something a bit better in the USA today. The natural shock and awe of Hurricane Katrina in the summer of 2005 apparently toppled the Bush-Cheney administration’s already teetering house of failed public policies in some seminal way. And if the administration has shored up its defenses somewhat since then, the melody keeps lingering on. Now Dick Cheney’s hunting accident has been followed almost immediately by an uproar over US port security, and “a company owned by the United Arab Emirates” – and even some talk about impeaching George W. Bush in the mainstream news.

New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Miami … and New Orleans (Again)

It was not long ago at all that the unusually influential Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot a good friend in a hunting accident. And even the clever young neo-conservative journalist on the PBS News Hour allowed that this was an event bursting with a wider cutting edge of apt political symbolism, bound to live on in American history.

It has been quickly followed by a sudden “firestorm” of bipartisan Congressional anxiety over the administration’s plan to have “a company owned by the United Arab Emirates … in control of certain operations at major American ports in New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Miami, and New Orleans.” (Mmm … New Orleans too, again?) And you can actually hear talk about impeaching George W. Bush not just on the Internet. At least for a little while, it was even on the 24-7 CNN news.

Of course two big questions are how strong all this new anti-administration fervor inside the USA today really is, and how long it can last. There will be a quite exact (if not decisive) day of reckoning with the 2006 mid-term Congressional elections this coming fall. And Jon Stewart from New Jersey, who will soon be hosting the Academy Awards anyway, keeps reminding us that the Democrats are not necessarily in any shape to profit decisively from the current Republican administration’s deepening malaise.

But from the TV sets north of what George W. Bush himself has renamed “the unfortified border” (it used to be “undefended”), it arguably still looks a little more promising than life under Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his new Conservative Party of Canada, propped up by the aging sovereigntist Bloc Quebecois. Who knows? Maybe John Stewart is too pessimistic in his newfound fame? Maybe soon a new kind of cavalry will come at the last moment to save the circled wagons – from the left and not the right (with a few brokeback-mountain cowboys, chocolate guards from Louisiana, and a large regiment of native guides)?

But a bit of a week reed, on the surface … ?

From what it’s possible to make out just watching TV, it does seem that the so-called “Port Security” issue is something at least a few Democrats – apparently including Hillary Clinton, in some connection? – have been grooming for a bit. A window of opportunity has now arisen to trot it out, nicely following up on the Cheney hunting accident. And some Republican members of Congress are concerned enough about its potency to discreetly get on board.

At the same time, the underlying logic of the issue at first seems to fall not entirely on the one side of the fence. The Australian website (where it is already tomorrow, btw) is already reporting “US port security fears ‘greatly exaggerated’.” According to President Bush himself: “The more people learn about the transaction that has been scrutinized and approved by my government, the more they’ll be comforted that our ports will be secure.” And he has gone on to say “he was struck by the fact that people were not concerned about port security when a British company was running the port operation, but they felt differently about an Arab company at the helm.” (I.e., isn’t “Islamophobia” something the multilateral left is supposed to be against?)

The response of the Congressional critics is that “the London-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., which previously operated at those ports, is a publicly traded company while Dubai Ports World [owned by the United Arab Emirates] is effectively controlled by the government there. Sens. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Clinton have said they will introduce legislation to prohibit companies owned or controlled by foreign governments from running port operations in the United States.”

This response has a certain tidy plausibility (which is one thing that makes you think the Democrats have been grooming it for a bit). Stuart Rothenberg, “editor of … a non-partisan newsletter that handicaps U.S. House, Senate, and gubernatorial elections” believes: “What we have here is a small dose of real concern and a huge amount of grandstanding by legislators, Republican and Democratic alike.” But he also thinks George W. Bush “needs to make the case that the new company will not be in a position to aid terrorists, and that it will continue policies and procedures … to keep America’s ports safe.” And, even Mr. Rothenberg concludes, say whatever else you like, “the President is taking a political hit, and given his current standing, it’s a hit that he cannot afford.”

Or are the depths more potent still … ?

There seems as well a good case for the argument that, even if the issue of “a company owned by the United Arab Emirates … in control of certain operations at major American ports in New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Miami, and New Orleans” is not all that practically important for real “port security” down on the ground, it still has a heady charge of the same powerful symbolism which turned Dick Cheney’s hunting accident into such a potent slight on the Bush-Cheney administration and all its over-aggressive foreign and domestic designs.

E.g., if the Middle East is such a breeding ground for terrorist activity directly threatening the US homeland that it is necessary to go to war in Iraq, then how come it’s OK to run even the slightest risk of a similar threat from a company owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates? Especially when, as the Associated Press reports: “Lawmakers from both parties have noted that some of the Sept. 11 hijackers used the United Arab Emirates as an operational and financial base. In addition, critics contend the UAE was an important transfer point for shipments of smuggled nuclear components sent to Iran, North Korea and Libya by a Pakistani scientist.”

President Bush says that the government of the United Arab Emirates has been a staunch US ally in the war against terrorism. To exclude the company that Dubai Ports World (owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates) has just purchased from “London-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co.,” which previously operated at major American ports, would be a diplomatic slight to the government of the United Arab Emirates that smacked of Islamophobia. But even the TV news has already implied that some kind of private business interests linked in some way to the Bush family have important ties to the United Arab Emirates as well.

Then there is the amazing saga of the city of Dubai today – the glittering pearl of the UAE, and an astounding testimony to just how many fabulous private fortunes and other sordid secrets of economic power in the early 21st century global village are mixed up in the Middle East oil economy. And then, in a kind of walk-on cameo role, there is even the grand old Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co. itself – the legendary P&O that even some US readers of Somerset Maugham stories may recall, as the leading global communications agency of the British Empire, in its brilliant late 19th and early 20th century sunset.

And this finally points to the original old evil empire whose spreading depredations the original democracy in America used to so staunchly oppose (as recently as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who probably played an important enough role in helping to move along the independence of India after the Second World War). Now America has somehow got stuck with the management (and the bills) of the old evil empire in its final phases of absolute and utter decline. Is this what America is supposed to be doing in the world today? How did it ever stray so far from its own fanfare for the common man? Do Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney and Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Rove have any serious idea at all of what they are really doing? Now, as the picture grows clearer, would you even want to buy a used car from these guys, let alone a war in Iraq or the port management services of a company owned by the Wizard of Oz in Dubai?

All this mere negative symbolism, only obliquely related to the most practical questions of port security down on the ground, must finally add up somehow. On the evening of Thursday, February 23 the TV news reported that Karl Rove has announced the administration will not be proceeding as quickly as originally planned with its approval of the P&O sale to Dubai Ports World, for purposes of operating at major American ports in New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Miami, and New Orleans. There will be (as Senator Clinton, among others, has most recently urged) some further time to look into the matter a little more deeply again, before rushing ahead. Meanwhile, partisans of the cause of progress can probably still take some comfort from the thought that considerably more damage to the false and failed new/old American Empire of George W. Bush has already been done.

Photos of Dubai, United Arab Emirates, from Dubai Tourism with thanks.

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