With the approval of the Bush administration, a company owned by the United Arab Emirates is poised to take over commercial management of shipping and stevedoring operations at six major American ports, located on the eastern seaboard and in New Orleans. When attention was suddenly drawn to this development last week, the urge toward public-safety questions was understandable. Not panic, but legitimate questions.
Sure as Dean follows Howard, though, understandable concern rapidly degenerated into calculated hysteria from poseurs seeking to claim the high ground from a president against whose measure they stand as national-security Lilliputians. Accelerating the downward spiral, the administration’s initially temperate but unconvincing defense of the transaction devolved just as quickly into nauseating politically correctness.
Neither corner of the ring has distinguished itself. In one, leading Democrats and some Republicans are evidently shocked to learn that many of the nation’s ports are managed by foreigners. Indeed, even as they railed against the prospect of this buy-out by UAE’s Dubai Ports World, Inc., they skipped past the inconvenient fact that the seller, the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, is a British concern.
Naturally, they prefer to cast the issue as one of foreign port-terminal management because they lack the gumption to state that the problem is Islamic participation in what is a gaping soft-spot in our armor. Yet, as usual, such too-clever-by-half cravenness has landed them in a box. Terminals at the ports in question–like many others in the country–have long been under the management of non-Americans. Should we expel everyone?
THE CLINTONS AND THE PORTS
Especially precious in this regard is Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s newfound passion for port security. Fresh from throwing in her lot with partisan efforts to derail the Patriot Act and frame the NSA’s surveillance of wartime enemy communications as a crime, the ‘08 stars in Mrs. Clinton’s eyes have suddenly twinkled with a fond memory: namely, how her husband managed to win the 1992 election, in large part, by getting to the right of the first President Bush on what was that era’s great global menace–post-Tiananmen Square China. So here she is, trying to elbow her way to the right of the current Bush administration on the scourge of al Qaeda … and hoping the rest of us are struck by amnesia.
You may recall, however, that, upon election, President Clinton proceeded to get tough with Beijing for, oh, about ten minutes. After that, there was no transfer of precious technology and no national security secret that couldn’t be had for the right price. Oh, and guess who now controls several port operations on the West Coast? And has for years? Well, whaddya know? It’s China.
Indeed, Chinese infiltration of U.S. ports would have been even more pervasive if Senator Clinton’s husband had had his way. In 1998, the Republican Congress (led by Senator James Inhofe (OK) and Congressman Duncan Hunter (CA)) had to stop him from turning over management of a 144-acre terminal at the former U.S. Naval Station in Long Beach to the Chinese Ocean Shipping Company–a subsidiary of the People’s Liberation Army linked to arms trading to Iran, Iraq, Syria, North Korea, Pakistan, Cuba, and even the street gangs of Los Angeles.
Of course, in the Clinton years, when anyone had the temerity to suggest that maybe it wasn’t such a hot idea to give away the store to thuggish, democracy-crushing Communists, we were told such troglodyte notions were insentient to the alchemy of “constructive engagement.” This was the very “why make friends when you can let them buy you?” philosophy that led these super-competent, obsessed-with-national-security Clintonistas to sell $8 billion worth of F-16s, anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles, other advanced weapons, and sundry munitions to–guess who?–The United Arab Emirates.
That happened in early 2000. For those keeping score, that’s less than two years after al Qaeda blew up our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. It is one year after the Clinton administration had Osama bin Laden targeted at a camp in Afghanistan … but called the strike off because the al Qaeda chief was in the company of high UAE officials, including an Emirati prince. A few months later, while the Clinton folks were getting the UAE its new military hardware, the regime’s friends at al Qaeda were blowing up the U.S.S. Cole.
So why do I have this crazy feeling that, in a new Clinton era, we’d be apt to find a lot more “engagement” than exclusion of the UAE (not to mention other dubious “partners”) at our ports? In any event, now that Senator Clinton is all over this port thing, it’ll be interesting to hear how she plans to tackle those dread Chinese foreigners managing California’s coastline–not to mention her explanation of why the administration in which she figured so prominently thought it was okay to sell lots of stuff that goes boom to a country apparently not even fit to run a port terminal.
PRESIDENT BUSH AND THE PORTS
Meanwhile, President Bush, who has never, ever vetoed anything in five years–not campaign-finance “reform” that shredded core First Amendment protections, not bursting budgets they haven’t built calculators big enough to tally, not a law extending Fifth Amendment protections to alien enemy combatants, etc.–has somehow decided that this, the great principle of equal-market access for checkered Muslim regimes, is where he draws his line in the sand.
The president is promising to kill any legislation aimed at derailing the deal, so offended is he by the suggestion that, in the middle of a war against jihadists, a tiny Islamic country with a history of terror ties, which lives in an unstable, al Qaeda-friendly neighborhood, maybe, just maybe, might be a smidge less suitable for port management than, say, a private company based in England. (England, for those with a short memory, is a country with which we have a bit of history, and which was, for example, patrolling the no-fly zone with us in Iraq while the aforementioned Emirati prince was cavorting with bin Laden in Kandahar.)
I mean, does it get any more chauvinistic than that?
So while Democrats pander to our fears (and thus adopt the very cudgel they claim the administration has clubbed them with since 9/11), the president panders to what he takes to be our sense of fair play. He has he challenged lawmakers, the Wall Street Journal reports, to “step up and explain why a Middle Eastern company is held to a different standard” than a British company.
Well, okay. The Middle Eastern company is wholly owned by an Islamic autocracy. The president says we need to democratize the Islamic world because autocracies are unstable. And this particular one, oil-rich but only about the size of Maine, has more non-citizens than citizens among its four million or so residents, is enmeshed in a territorial dispute with those famously reasonable mullahs in Iran (over the Tunb Islands and Abu Musa Island), and has been a hub for international narcotics trafficking and money laundering.
Nonetheless, the administration regards the regime–which does not show much promise of democratic reform–as both friendly and adherent to moderate Islam. As usual, “moderate” is in the eye of the beholder. For example, it is a crime punishable by imprisonment in the UAE for a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim man–because that is a violation of the meta-tolerant Religion of Peace’s sharia law, which governs the realm. Muslim men can marry non-Muslim women (and more than one if they like), but you can get sent to prison for such crimes as urging Muslims to convert to other faiths.
Moreover, as my friend Frank Gaffney points out, the regime despises our close ally, Israel. The UAE promotes the idea of a one-state solution in “Palestine” (hint: the one state is not Israel), and may well be funding charities in Gaza and the West Bank–where “charities” are notorious for underwriting terrorism.
It was also a key supporter of the Taliban–one of only three countries to recognize bin Laden’s kindly hosts as the official government of Afghanistan. In fact, the UAE is the country through which bin Laden was allowed to transit when al Qaeda moved its headquarters to Afghanistan from Sudan in 1996.
All that aside, we are at war with jihadists who, more than anything else, seek to strike us domestically with weapons of mass destruction–including nukes if they can access them. Lo and behold, it turns out that the UAE has been used as a transfer-station for nuclear components in the conspiracy of Pakistani proliferator A. Q. Kahn, who was selling technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya. Obviously, the Kahn enterprise would have made other plans had it not believed it was on safe footing with the UAE.
SHOULD WE CANCEL THE DEAL?
Does all this mean the port deal ought to be scotched? I think it does, but I have a (slightly) open mind–as do a lot of other people who fret over our security.
The Bush administration contends that the UAE has cleaned up its act since 9/11. There are reasons to be skeptical. The administration, after all, also counts Saudi Arabia and Yemen as cherished friends. It has set a laughably generous grading curve for Islamic regimes (and Islamic leaders) seeking the “moderate” diploma which qualifies them for the status of “ally” in the war on terror. Moreover, while the UAE has plainly taken some steps in the right direction, its facilitation of the enemy prior to 9/11 was substantial. It is not generally our practice to consider hardened criminals redeemed after only four years of good behavior–especially when “good” in this context is, to put it mildly, relative.
On the other hand, port commercial management is not exactly the same as port security. If it really insists on pressing ahead with this deal, the administration should have a chance to demonstrate why, at a time when our homeland is a target and it takes very few operatives to execute a massive attack, we should be comfortable with the UAE in such a prominent role at our borders–even if security remains primarily the task of the Department of Homeland Security.
But the administration should make that case to Congress and the American people, not to a secret tribunal (the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States) which is run by the Treasury Department–rather than the Pentagon or DHS–and for whom the promotion of commerce has pride of place over national security.
Which is all to say: This transaction needs a long, careful look. It doesn’t need stone-throwing from opportunists who would be better advised to check their own glass houses. And it doesn’t need bully-pulpit demagoguery.
You don’t need to be an “Islamophobe” to have doubts here. You just need to have an IQ of about 11.
–Andrew C. McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.