Analysis of the aborted ports deal begins and ends with political questions. Vin Weber, former congressman and now a lobbyist for the emirates, acknowledged that public pressure in the matter was “unprecedented” in his experience. Mr. Weber had for several days been counseling Dubai to back off from the deal, and signals were buzzing about in the capital at a feverish rate. On Thursday, the climactic day, everyone in Washington was bound to or from the White House, the Senate, the Department of Homeland Security, or to a TV talk show . . . when, suddenly, the calm voice of the sheik came across. Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, emir of Dubai, said in effect, “Look, if you people want so bad to operate the ports we took over from Peninsular & Oriental in Great Britain, well go ahead. Round up a few American capitalists who want to buy us out for the $6.8 billion we were willing to pay.”
President Bush was understandably indignant at the suggestion that he was indifferent to U.S. security. Ironically, when word got out that the White House hadn’t even been aware of the pending deal until late last month, critics rushed to the conclusion that here was evidence of presidential insouciance. But it wasn’t that. It was evidence that the machinery of government over which the president presides was humming along, everyone doing his duty. John Negroponte, director of national intelligence, had surveilled the proposed sale and found no objection to it. The Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States, an interagency committee that passes judgment on foreign acquisitions, had approved the shift. The Coast Guard was unconcerned.
There was nothing inherently wrong with the deal, and the president’s involvement became purely political. House majority leader John Boehner said it in so many words: “House Republicans were obligated to take action to respond to the concerns Americans have expressed about the proposed deal.” This is different from saying that Congress had to act to insure national security. Everything, as one observer noted, has changed since 9/11. The American public was almost overnight induced to be edgy about a deal which would give administrative control in six major port facilities to a company in effect owned by a remote Islamic emirate located in a part of the world over which, manifestly, the U.S. has only problematic control.
If the matter had proceeded normally, attention would have been given to other questions. Is there a flat rule against selling port facilities to companies that operate under foreign flags? Since the ports in question were being operated by a British company, such a national prohibition would have been new. That does not mean it would have been irrational, because it might be persuasively contended that in an age in which terrorist leverage is especially to be guarded against, what was okay under the rule of free trade and global economic impartiality is no longer okay.
That argument can logically be extended to weigh against any building rising beyond a given number of stories. The vulnerability of the twin towers was in some respects owing to their height above the ground. Critics of the Dubai deal have pointed out that only a small amount of commerce is actually examined at our ports of entry and that this must be reformed. The reform could of course take place irrespective of who owns the port facilities. How incoming goods are examined is something left to Customs and Coast Guard and security forces. And these agencies would operate under rules that would not change whether the owner of the port was foreign or American.
Yet the mere feel of port facilities owned by a) foreigners, b) a despot kingdom, c) Muslims, d) sitting there in the Persian Gulf a stone’s throw from Iran . . . Well, Americans aren’t isolationists, but too much is too much.
The White House recognized force majeure. The president did not repeat his threat to veto congressional intervention in the deal. The 62-2 vote in the House Appropriation Committee, the 70 percent opposed in the CBS News poll–carried the day. And it was manifestly a relief to the White House that the deal was aborted without a political showdown, which the president would have lost.
Will there be bad blood? Yes, even though the emir isn’t likely to lose a great deal from properties which have depreciated in virtue of this round of capital immobility. There is, also, the matter of pride. The U.S. diplomatic apparatus will look for opportunities to say pleasant things about Dubai, and the emir will be consoled by the strategic satisfactions of continuing to engage in commerce with the west.