Politics & Policy

Cancel This Deal, Diplomatically

The Dubai Ports World deal can't work.

“America’s belief in human dignity will guide our policies, yet rights must be more than the grudging concessions of dictators; they are secured by free dissent and the participation of the governed. In the long run, there is no justice without freedom, and there can be no human rights without human liberty.”–President George W. Bush, Second Inaugural Address, 2005.

Dubai Ports World, the subsidiary of the United Arab Emirates, has now asked for a 45-day review from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) to investigate security concerns over the control of six U.S. ports. This is to the good, calming calls for congressional action as well as subsequent threats of a presidential veto. Many lobbyists have been hired, charges alleged, fact-sheets disseminated, and polls put in the field. Still, questions remain to be asked, questions that none of the above D.C. responses have addressed. Perhaps these questions can be asked by CFIUS over the course of the 45-day review; perhaps they will begin to explain why so many are so riven over this issue. But better than asking questions, a back-channel message should be sent to the UAE to withdraw this deal, much as China withdrew its UNOCAL bid last year. This deal will not stand public deliberation; it confuses things.

At the end of the day, we should not risk being perceived as forgiving or rewarding the people who played a role in the slaughter of 3,000 of our countrymen. This deal has confused the war’s message and objectives and handed the opposition a club with which to beat the president on his strongest issue: trust with national security and moral clarity on the war. Never has the president been further from the base on these issues than now. But, by having the UAE withdraw its offer, the issue will be taken off the table–it can be corrected and ended; otherwise it will live and bleed for at least another 45 days.

Some have argued that the more one looks into the security issues at play, the more one becomes satisfied that security concerns were addressed by the original CFIUS review and that further commitments by Dubai Ports World were promised. Nevertheless, many remain unconvinced. Our ports remain one of our most vulnerable points for attack–and the cargo in some of these ports is to be managed by a company from the UAE. No matter how many assurances we are given that our government will remain in charge of this security, the cargo will be managed and coordinated by a foreign-owned company whose country has anything but a strong record in preventing terrorism. In short, when all the smoke is cleared, the UAE is not a country of tried and true reliability like, say, Great Britain. There is a difference between Great Britain and the UAE, many differences in fact, and we should not be instructed otherwise.

But it is the larger political concerns of policy and consistency that remain most troubling and will not subside, concerns that go to the very heart of our Global War on Terrorism and the ideas by which the administration has rallied support for it. And the more one looks not into the singular issue of security concerns but into the more specifics of what kind of country the UAE is, the more one becomes dissatisfied.

This is not the stuff of “nativism” or “isolationism” or “Islamophobia”–labels that have been thrown around too casually over the past two weeks. Many of us so labeled were among the first to call for the liberation of Iraqi Arabs and Muslims, and enthusiastically defended and supported the liberation of the Muslims in Afghanistan–indeed, many of us supported the liberation of Muslims elsewhere, and continue to support liberation for Iranians. The labels may apply to those who have finally woken up to the threats posed by other nations, but not to us, and not to long-time supporters of the president’s call for democracy in the Arab world–a call that we believe is stifled by countenancing the UAE deal.

We are given evidence that since 9/11 the UAE has changed its ways to become a staunch supporter of the United States. But how much and for how long have those ways been changed? For example, for such a newly heralded supporter, why is it–and how dangerous is it–that a Zogby poll taken in October of 2005 found that over 70 percent of those in the UAE have an unfavorable opinion of the United States? Are such opinions the fuel that drove the UAE’s policies toward al Qaeda prior to 9/11? That is not something that can be asked about Great Britain.

Here is what rankles Americans, and what should rankle the administration: We are being asked to not only trust our ports to be partially run by the UAE, but we are additionally being asked to support a multibillion-dollar arrangement that supports an authoritarian regime. The message of the Bush doctrine has been blurred. We have been led in this war by the great call to and for freedom in other countries–”the urgent requirement of our nation’s security, and the calling of our time,” as the president put it in his powerful Second Inaugural. This calling applies to nowhere else as direct as it does to the Middle East.

Freedom House rates the UAE “not free” and puts it one notch above Saudi Arabia. The Economist actually ranks it one notch worse than Iran in its “political freedom index.” In its report on the country, Freedom House reports that “[c]itizens 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 of the UAE in what is known as the Supreme Council of Rulers.” That is not something that can be said about Great Britain.

As for freedom of expression, the UAE “severely restricts this right.” While freedom does exist in the economic sector-mostly for the promotion of trade-”Discrimination against non-citizens, who make up the vast majority of the population and at least half of the workforce, occurs in many aspects of life, including employment, access to education, housing, and healthcare.” This is the description of the sort of regime that President Bush warned us about a year ago: “A status quo of tyranny and hopelessness in the Middle East–the false stability of dictatorship and stagnation–can only lead to deeper resentment in a troubled region, and further tragedy in free nations.” That is not something that can be said about Great Britain.

To defend this deal is to defend a $7 billion arrangement with a country that has never had a democratic party in its entire existence. Indeed, it has been a supporter of terrorist organizations and authoritarian regimes. And, despite post-9/11 reforms, to this day the UAE will not recognize Israel, and has funded Islamic terror movements, including Hamas, during the very time we are told it has changed it ways. It may have changed some of its ways, but it is a country that in its 34-years of existence has been unable to recognize the first, original, and perhaps only fully-fledged democracy in the Middle East–Israel–which has been in existence for almost 60-years, and where Arabs enjoy more freedoms than they do in the UAE.

To this day–and since it has become a post-9/11 ally–the UAE continues to support the Arab commercial boycott of Israel. Since we are told the UAE would be offended by being barred from trading with and in the United States, perhaps it might take the next 40 days or so to rescind its boycott of Israel, and–if it is not asking too much–actually see fit to recognize the existence of Israel. For a prospective deal with the UAE down the line, this would go a long way toward satisfying concerns that we are rewarding a questionable ally. In short, if the UAE would be offended by our barring them from our ports, they should see fit to stop offending free trade and democratic principles by not barring Israeli goods in theirs.

We will certainly learn more about the security of our ports and how it would fare under the UAE’s management, but it is the politics that matters most just now–politics in the most serious sense of the word: how we organize and define our republic and ourselves. We cannot have a policy to isolate Hamas while doing this sort of business with a country that supports it. We cannot speak of the importance of freedom in the Arab world while asking Americans to support commerce through our ports with an autocratic oligarchy that only four years ago recognized the Taliban but still cannot see fit to recognize Israel. We cannot speak against “the grudging concessions of dictators” while asking Americans to ignore the political record of the UAE. In short, we cannot take this chance with our security or our principles.

The president has asked “what kind of signal does it send throughout the world if it’s okay for a British company to manage the ports, but not a company that has been secure, been cleared for security purposes from the Arab world?” The better question, with larger implications, is: What kind of a signal are we sending by making a public ally of a country that refuses democracy and does not recognize the existence of its most democratic neighbor because it is considered to be inhabited by members of the wrong religion? Who are the real xenophobes here?

We are indeed a commercial republic, but we should not allow commerce to dictate our republican principles any more than we should allow it to trump our wartime sensibilities, goals, or lessons. The stakes are too high, and the nobility of our effort is too great. Kill the deal, Mr. President.

William J. Bennett is the Washington fellow of the Claremont Institute, the chairman of Americans for Victory Over Terrorism, and the host of the nationally syndicated, Bill Bennett’s Morning in America radio show. Seth Leibsohn is a fellow of the Claremont Institute and the executive director of Americans for Victory Over Terrorism.


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