Bush flat-footed while Congress falls for knee-jerk reaction

The Washington Times

Plenty of blame to go around this week on the topic of the ports deal. So let’s get busy.

Like most everybody else, as of two weeks ago I don’t know diddly about the management of seaports, and I will admit that my reading of the financial pages is not at the level of keeping up with the latest corporate acquisitions. So, when the news broke wide that a Dubai company, which is to say a company from the Arab Middle East, is buying America’s ports (no, that isn’t right, but that’s what it sounded like at first), my initial reaction was exactly of the kind that has fueled the firestorm over the deal ever since: Huh? Is that a good idea? If we get somebody to run our ports, wouldn’t it be better to have a nice, say, Scandinavian company? They’ve been seafaring people for a long time, after all, and the days in which the Vikings sacked and burned coastal towns are safely past.

My ignorant and vaguely xenophobic reaction, it turns out, fell well within one standard deviation of the congressional mean. But whereas I decided not to lay a knee-jerk column on you last week, our lawmakers headed straight for the microphones. Democrats are long practiced at declaring each and every news development the latest illustration of the complete failure of the Bush administration, and were especially delighted with an opportunity to get to President Bush’s right on a security issue. Republicans saw which way public opinion was going. And not to forget, there were indeed legitimate questions to ask.

The Bush administration, meanwhile, was caught flat-footed simultaneously defending the deal and trying to figure who within knew exactly what about it. Mr. Bush’s instinct was to vent. It’s abundantly clear that the administration can’t stand the Congress, and not without reason. Democrats are in pure attack mode, and do-nothing Republicans seem to spend most of their time worrying about which of their fears they should fear most: making policy choices, Jack Abramoff, the loss of their ability to earmark goodies for the folks back home, the president’s low approval ratings, or their umbrella fear, the loss of their majority, accompanied as it is by the certain expectation that Democrats will not be magnanimous in victory.

But Mr. Bush’s threat to veto any legislation blocking the deal was a classic example of escalation when de-escalation was called for.

Mr. Bush also vented by waxing indignant at the notion that a company from the Middle East would receive greater scrutiny than a company from Great Britain. It is one of the great strengths of Mr. Bush’s handling of the long war we’re in that he has identified the problem as radical Islam and reached out in brotherhood to the rest of the Islamic world. Yet to describe the Great Britain analogy as a political loser doesn’t begin to do justice to it. Sure, many of the large bin Laden family have nothing against the United States and have repudiated Osama, but that doesn’t mean a little delicacy isn’t required when you introduce one of Osama’s brothers as your future son-in-law.

Besides which, a very important achievement of the Bush administration has been the establishment of the proposition that the internal political arrangements of a state make a huge difference. That’s why Mr. Bush is going off for positive and forward-looking meetings in democratic India despite its nuclear breakout, while he remains deeply worried about what Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would do with the bomb.

So, the United Arab Emirates has been a good ally in the war on terror. We hear this in its defense. That’s fine. It’s also one of 45 countries on Freedom House’s “not free” list. Freedom House says it’s “a closed political system in which the views of citizens are not taken into account … with the ruling family maintaining a firm grip on its monopoly of political power … Citizens of the UAE cannot change their government democratically. The UAE has never held an election. All decisions about political leadership rest with the dynastic rulers of the seven separate emirates.” I’m not going to bother you with Freedom House’s assessment of Great Britain.

DP World is also a state-owned company, whereas the British company involved in the sale is publicly traded. Last I checked, Americans were generally dubious about state-owned companies because of concerns about their economic efficiency and, especially, the potential for political interference. I’m afraid it’s not poor form to ask who would win a free and fair election held in the UAE today and accordingly end up calling the shots at DP World.

Maybe this deal is not that objectionable. But neither is the UAE admirable, nor the model of corporate governance of DP World salutary. The international politics smacks of support for the shah of Iran as a pillar of modernization, and since it’s speculation season, I’d say the domestic politics of getting this deal done reeks of K Street.