The 45-day delay for more investigation into the United Arab Emirates-owned Dubai Ports World looked last week like a port in a political storm. Now it looks more like a trap.
The 45-day review at best freezes the debate in place, preserving a status quo in which the White House is taking a political pounding. At worst, it allows the opponents of the deal, who have the offensive, to keep picking away at it, whether by airing (and distorting) past Coast Guard concerns about DP World or highlighting the company’s participation in the Arab boycott of Israel. The White House, incredibly, is on the wrong side of a 70-20 national-security issue that has more resonance than the Patriot Act and the National Security Agency wiretapping program. This is simply a debacle, shaping up as a lose-lose for Bush. If he loses on the Hill, he will be humiliated and identified with the unpopular deal. If he wins, it’s hard to see how he won’t be doing so against the grain of public opinion, harming himself on national security in a cause–having DP World manage the terminals–that is not of fundamental importance.
The deal is unpopular among Republicans–almost 60 percent of whom oppose it, according to polls. The ports controversy is actually wreaking the damage on Bush’s political base that the Harriet Miers nomination only threatened to inflict. Congressional Republicans aren’t going to let Sen. Chuck Schumer, who will surely find a reason to oppose the deal no matter what, get to their right on port security, and many of them actively want to split with the president on a high-profile issue.
Although many of our friends have sincere doubts about the deal, we have yet to hear a compelling argument against it. So it is with regret that we say the deal should be jettisoned. That seems to be where the trajectory of this controversy is headed anyway, and the sooner it happens the less painful it will be for the administration. There are many more important issues on which Bush should, nay must, spend his dwindling political capital, the war in Iraq foremost among them. To realize this is to prioritize, not to panic.
Nixing the deal will be a blow to our relationship with the UAE, but Bush should get credit from them for fighting for the deal and sticking up for Dubai. Surely there will be some subtle way to compensate the UAE in another area. Bush’s credibility with Congress–after his veto threat and saber rattling–will take a blow. But not as large a blow as he would suffer if he kept fighting and lost (or if the issue were to stay red hot and contribute to a GOP loss of Congress). Republican members of Congress will surely be relieved to put the controversy behind them.
The technicalities of how to do that will have to be worked out, but the 45-day delay itself shows that, in this case, the legalities can be massaged to suit the politics. Whatever the exit strategy ultimately is, it won’t be pretty. But nothing about this episode has been edifying. Bush should get out as soon as he can.