Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Don't Let Arabs Sign Our Paychecks!

WASHINGTON (AP) - President Bush said Tuesday that a deal allowing an Arab company to take over [the operation of] six major U.S. seaports [from a British company] should go forward and that he would veto any congressional effort to stop it.
Opposition appears to be based more in fear and pandering than genuine policy concerns. As the President explained:

"I want those who are questioning it to step up and explain why all of a sudden a Middle Eastern company is held to a different standard than a Great British company. I am trying to conduct foreign policy now by saying to the people of the world, 'We'll treat you fairly.'"

...

"This is a company that has played by the rules, has been cooperative with the United States, from a country that's an ally on the war on terror, and it would send a terrible signal to friends and allies not to let this transaction go through," the president said after emerging from his helicopter on the South Lawn.

The basic criticism is essentially guilt by association:
Critics have noted that some of the 9/11 hijackers used the UAE as an operational and financial base. In addition, they 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.
Similar observations could be made about many countries, including the U.S., without refusing to do business with them. The UAE, however, is also an important ally and business center:

U.S. warships regularly dock at Dubai's Jebel Ali Port, which is also managed by DP World, and the emirate became the first Middle Eastern port city in 2004 to sign a U.S. pact aimed at deterring the use of shipping containers for terrorism.

The UAE provides logistical support for some U.S. military operations in the region, including Afghanistan. The Gulf Arab state, an OPEC oil producer, is negotiating a free trade agreement with the United States.

There is a more reasonable reaction than blocking the takeover. The port authorities should have some say over who they do business with:
[Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich] and New York's George Pataki, also a Republican, have indicated they may try to cancel lease arrangements at ports in their states because of the DP World takeover.
The Washington Times explains what "operating" a port really means and interviewed actual Baltimore port workers (rather than posturing politicians):

Work at the port will continue to be performed by unionized longshoremen under the deal in which state-owned Dubai Ports World of the United Arab Emirates purchased London-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co. for $6.8 billion.

P&O provides stevedoring and terminal operating services at Baltimore's Seagirt and Dundalk Marine terminals, the largest of the Maryland Port Administration's seven terminals, and at five other U.S. seaports.

The company also hires the terminal work force and ensures cargo is delivered or shipped at the port. It employs about 65 workers at the Port of Baltimore who handle mostly containerized cargo.

The U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection provide security... Port operators "just make sure every ship and every truck is unloaded," said Mike Bowden, president of International Longshoremen's Association Local 1459.

...

"I don't think it will affect me," said a 61-year-old longshoreman in an orange jumpsuit, who stopped by the same Citgo station to buy a stack of lottery tickets yesterday evening. "Everybody coming through on the ships are foreigners already.

"They have to go through customs and all that. ... It's the same ship, just somebody different who owns it."

As workers rolled out of the port at the end of their shift, one longshoreman, who also didn't provide his name, summed up the situation: "Nothing is going to change for us, man."

Rich Galen draws a useful analogy to explain port operations:

...the cable news programming geniuses have been talking about the US outsourcing "port security" to Dubai.

This is like saying the company which operates your local airport - which is to say it decides how much you pay for parking and where in the terminal the Starbucks will be located - is responsible for airline security.

It isn't.

Nor will DP World be responsible for port security. That remains with Customs and the Coast Guard...

Want to know what's really behind all this?

It's an even numbered year and we are 253 days from election day.

It's not about port security; It's about incumbent security.

Misunderstanding how ports work has spawned many false-premised reactions and editorials, like the Washington Post's "Wanna Buy a Port?" which begins "We're selling our harbors to an Arab government." Then there's an overly-emotional and less than factual letter reported by the AP:

"In regards to selling American ports to the United Arab Emirates, not just NO - but HELL NO," conservative Rep. Sue Myrick, R-N.C., wrote Bush in a terse letter on Wednesday that she also posted on her Web site.

No matter that no American port is actually being sold, Bush faces a spreading rebellion among Republicans, Democrats and port-state governors.

(The Washington Post quoted Myrick's letter without pointing out the false statement.)

Allegations of "anti-Arab bias" do not seem misplaced:
Meanwhile, Arab-Americans have said that the focus on the Dubai company is based on anti-Arab feelings rather than security concerns. "I find some of the rhetoric being used against this deal shameful and irresponsible," said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, "There is bigotry coming out here." He accused politicians of exploiting fears left over from the 9/11 attacks to gain advantage in an election year. "Bush is vulnerable so the Democrats jump on it. The Republicans feel vulnerable so they jump on it. The slogan is, if it's Arab, it's bad. Hammer away" he said.
Meanwhile, more important issues are being ignored:

But whatever happens, experts in port operations said they feared broader issues about security in the country's docks were being lost in the controversy...

Stephen E. Flynn, a specialist in maritime security at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted that although the company is state-owned, several members of its top management are Americans -- including its general counsel, a senior vice president and its outgoing chief operating officer, Edward H. Bilkey, who is a former U.S. Navy officer. And since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the United States has increasingly depended on such foreign port operators to cooperate in inspecting cargo before it heads for U.S. shores.

"It's a global network at the end of the day that we're trying to secure here," Flynn said. "And that doesn't happen by the United States owning every bit of it. What we should be focusing on instead is the question, are the security standards adequate?"

...

"What I hope for out of this whole debate is that, as Americans suddenly realize most of our marine terminals are managed by foreign-owned companies, they ask, given that that's a reality, how do we secure it?" Flynn said. "I also hope this current situation doesn't lead to a feeding frenzy [against foreign operators], because if we want things to be secure over here, we're going to have to work with foreign counterparts."

With a deeper understanding of how ports operate, it's much harder to defend opposing this deal, which, as Rich Galen described it, was "known to the financial community since November, [and] approved by one of those alphabet commissions which happens to involve SIX Cabinet Departments including Treasury, State, Homeland Security, Commerce, and Justice..." I will be very surprised if opponents decide to use fact-based reasons to stop the transfer. While ports should still be able to reject having a new partner forced on them, I have yet to see a good reason to oppose the takeover entirely.

For more information, check out:
Der Spiegel's overview of the UAE's development and economy
"Background Note: United Arab Emirates" (State Department)
"Ports of Politics: How to sound like a hawk without being one" (Wall Street Journal)
"Security and the Sale of Port Facilities: Facts and Recommendations" (Heritage Foundation)

7 comments:

April said...

I can't believe someone used the word "hell" in a letter to the President.

Nick said...

It's not like she put much thought into it.

yachismom said...

My thought is the real problem with security risks at our ports has nothing to do with the UAE taking over operations but with our own lack of security, As I understand, very few ships coming into our ports are even boarded and checked for security infractions. That only 3 out of every 100 containers are actually opened to see what is in them. Our problem is our security right here. Funny how the same people that last week did not think terrorist were a problem are now scared to death of the UAE.

Nick said...

There are some problems with port security, as one of the Washington Post articles explained, but it is also a bit of a scare tactic to talk about how few containers are opened. Opening and inspecting every container would grind world trade to a halt. That's why the U.S. is working with other port states to ensure the safety of the whole shipping process. It makes it easier to target suspicious shipments and inspect them (I think that number is closer to 5%.)

It is also interesting to note that if someone wanted to bring an atomic bomb into a port and detonate it there, that could all happen before inspection was even possible.

Nick said...

Here's a good description of current security measures:

After the September 11 terrorist attacks, the government began a new program that required documentation on all cargo 24 hours before it was loaded on a ship in a foreign port bound for the United States. A "risk analysis" is conducted on every shipment, including a review of the ship's history, the cargo's history and contents and other factors. Each ship must also provide the U.S. government 96 hours notice of its arrival in an American port, along with a crew manifest.

JJH said...

While I'm not strenously opposed to the deal (I do maintain that the Administration has been stark-raving incompetent in it's political handling of it, but whatever), Andrew McCarthy has a decent article today bringing up what I would call "fact-based reasons" to at least question the deal.

Nick said...

The good thing about McCarthy's article is that instead of going nuts with false premised claims like the shameful Rep. Myrick, he just discusses an issue of UAE foreign policy. It probably was also raised and addressed in the multiagency review.

In fact, many of the issues he raises (e.g., funding terrorism through the Red Crescent - the Muslim world's version of the Red Cross) are very distinct from the ports issue, and if true would warrant independent attention. To reject the deal, claim victory, and then stop would accomplish nothing.