February 23, 2006

Port Deal

The latest political showdown and Bush Administration controversy seems to be the UAE ports deal. Everyone seems a bit shocked that Bush has threatened to veto any legislation blocking or delaying the deal, and that he did it so quickly and forcefully. Bipartisan condemnation of the deal is on the rise and a veto-overriding super majority may be in the making.

So the question is, why is Bush doing this? There are four possibilities that come to mind:

  1. Bush has lost whatever marbles he had and he and Cheney are colluding with their cronies and Arab oil buddies to the detriment of US security. This seems to be the standard argument of the crowd that claims that the Iraq War was all about Halliburton profits.
  2. Bush is simply reacting to Congress' attempt at oversight in a predictable (for him) way. He maintains his right to act unilaterally on matters of foreign affairs and is not about to let Congress tell him what to do. Whether you think this is an example of Bush trying to slip something by Congress and being unreasonable in response to their attempts at oversight, or of opportunistic Congressmen making a last-minute stink for political advantage over a properly vetted executive decision, seems to depend somewhat on your partisanship.
  3. Bush has made the port deal part of a larger diplomatic deal with the UAE and is fighting hard not to have it scuttled. Despite their often anti-Israeli stance and persistence as a money-laundering hub, they are one of our (useful) allies in the Middle East, and this deal may be a quid pro quo either retrospectively for help during the Iraq War, or in exchange for future help (for instance, in any coming confrontation with Iran). Bush is willing to use his veto, and expend political capital, to keep that deal going forward.
  4. Bush made the port deal part of a larger deal with the UAE, but wants Congress to get him out of it. This may seem unlikely, but Presidents often play the good guy to smooth foreign relations, while relying on Congress to do the necessary dirty work. Clinton and the Kyoto Protocol come to mind as a somewhat recent example. In this scenario, the UAE would have made much-needed support in current or future operations contingent on the port deal. The Administration, recognizing the need to keep them as an ally, but also the foolhardiness of giving them port operations, decides to publicly support the deal while maneuvering to get it killed by Congress. The more political capital he expends (and the more forcefully he expends it) the more likely the Emirates are to believe that he did the best he could. We may then be able to maneuver them to a more acceptable pay-off for support.
Now, that last item is pure speculation – perhaps born out of too many Tom Clancy novels and West Wing episodes – but it is how, in my imagination at least, foreign policy (should) work. If I had to bet, would I bet on that option? Probably not, but given that many see the Meiers-Alito rope-a-dope in a similar light, I'm not sure I would rule it out.

It is dependent on the idea that giving port operations to an Arab government-owned company is a bad idea – an idea that I'm open to, but not set on, and not qualified to judge without a lot more information. I would add, though, that I think you need a pretty good reason to disallow it.

Update: Before writing this, I wish I'd read this article, which claims that their was a "secret agreement" with the UAE company to provide records on demands to help with investigations. Not sure what to make of that, although it doesn't rule out any option above.

Posted by richard at February 23, 2006 09:14 AM


Not sure what I think of all this. It certainly seems a bit racist to say that we can't have certain people doing certain jobs because of their ethnic background.

Does TSA, for instance, have a no-Moslem/no-Arab policy? My guess is that the FBI simply does extensive background checks before it hires anyone. If those checks were done here, then what's the problem?

Granted, I can see that it's harder to do a background check on a company than of a single employee. But if you're committed to this, then you dot your i's and cross your t's and you defy anyone to tell you otherwise.

Congress looks pretty bad here, to my mind. They're either cynically playing to racial politics to score "national security" points with the American people, or they're genuine in their belief that an Arab-owned company is a per se security risk. I'm not sure which is worse.

I don't oppose Bush on this — in part because I don't purport to be informed enough on it to take a position (not that that's ever stopped him) — but I have to shake my head in wonder at the inconsistency of it. Being Arab is enough, on its own, to earn you an indefinite stay in Guantanamo. It's enough to get you "extraordinarily rendered" away from your vacation into an Afghan torture chamber. And now this.

It would be nice if Bush took the occasion to give a little Presidential instruction to Congress and the American people on how you're not necessarily a terrorist just because you're Arab or Moslem. If that's his point, I'd like it to come through more clearly.

If his point is this side deal for cooperation with U.S. investigation, then all this is brilliant — he sets a trap for the bozos in Congress, gets them posturing in offensive ways about how Arabs are per se national security risks, then he outflanks them on the security issue by revealing the secret deal. Good for him if that's how this plays. The jerks in Congress deserve what they get.

Still, though, I'd like somebody to be politically accountable for cultivating/exploiting these blanket attitudes about Arabs and Moslems. I know it wins a certain party votes, and I know that a certain other party now wants in on the action.

But I wish that the race- and religion-baiting would stop.

Posted by: Phutatorius at February 23, 2006 05:04 PM

In the article that you link to "We have to maintain a principle that it doesn't matter where in the world one of these purchases is coming from," Rice said Wednesday. She described the United Arab Emirates as "a good partner in the war on terrorism."

So my question is: why is port security for sale at all?!?

Posted by: Michael Weiksner at March 4, 2006 05:23 PM

Who said that "port security" was for sale? Or are you just listening to talking points and not digging into the issue? The port deal is just about who manages the longshoremen (or stevedores) and coordinates the cargo offloading. Port security is still run by the Coast Guard (in the water) and the Customs and Border Patrol (on land).

The previous manager of these operations was a foreign (British) company and it's changed hands (if I recall correctly) several times in the last decade. Suddenly you're concerned?

DP World runs some of the most efficient port operations in the world – in Dubai, Hong Kong, Australia, Germany, China, and a host of other places. Isn't protectionism in this situation going to send the exact wrong message to Arab and Muslim fence-sitters? Aren't we trying to convince the Muslim moderates to play by the West's rules and share in the profits?

If we lock out Arab companies, don't we risk saying "fruits of capitalism and globalization for me but not for thee" to those who might be tempted to come around to our side?

Posted by: richard at March 4, 2006 10:02 PM

Holy cross-talk batman! you are misreading my comment. If these functions aren't security-related, then we should let anyone do it (even a "great british" company or one from the UAE). If they are security-related, then we shouldn't even let an American contract company do it.

But, until (1) ports are secure & (2) the case is made that this deal doesn't have to do with port security, the bush admin has a problem. And so do we as the American people.

Posted by: Michael Weiksner at March 5, 2006 12:30 PM

Okay, maybe I misread your comment.... Rereading it, it's still unclear to me what you meant when you asked why port security is for sale. 'Cause it's not.

I suppose I understand you now as saying that the Bush Administration has done a bad PR job making sure we know that this is not about port security. And I'd have to agree about that.

I'd also have to agree that port security, while probably a bit better than 5 years ago, is woefully inadequate. I'm not particularly impressed by the TSA and airport security either. Or much of the feel-good measures taken by DHS. (For instance, I still can't believe that the FBI and ICE fingerprint systems still can't share information).

Regardless, if all you meant was what you said in your second comment, then please excuse the caustic nature of my response.

Posted by: richard at March 5, 2006 12:41 PM

You are correct that my presumption is that port security is for sale. I am open to evidence to the contrary. For example, I saw a post on dan drezner's site talking about how low-level (e.g., less political) cabinet officials made the security assessment. But I'd love to learn more about the specifics of the port security operations - if the UAE company won't do it, who does and how?

But I'd glad that we cleared up the fact that I wasn't being xenophobic - my concerns are entirely security-focused.

Posted by: Michael Weiksner at March 5, 2006 01:12 PM