February 24, 2006
A Dubai Finesse
WASHINGTON -- If
only Churchill were alive today, none of this would be happening.
The proud imperialist would have taken care that the Peninsular
and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., chartered in 1840 by Victoria
(``by the grace of God ... Queen defender of the faith'' on ``this
thirty first day of December in the fourth year of our reign''),
would still be serving afternoon tea and crumpets on some immaculate
Jewel-in-the-Crown cricket pitch in Ceylon.
The United Arab Emirates
would still be a disunited bunch of subsistence Arab tribes grateful
for the protection of the British Navy in the Persian Gulf.
And we hapless Americans
-- already desperately trying to mediate, pacify and baby-sit
the ruins of Churchill's Empire: Iraq, Palestine, India/Pakistan,
Yemen, even (Anglo-Egyptian) Sudan -- would not be in the midst
of a mini-firestorm over the sale of the venerable P&O, which
manages six American ports, to the UAE.
This has raised the
obvious question of whether we want our ports, through which a
nuclear bomb could come, handled by a country two of whose nationals
flew into the South Tower on 9/11 and which has a history of laundering
money and nuclear secrets from bad guys to worse guys.
Congress is up in
arms. The Democrats, in particular, are in full cry, gleeful to
at last get to the right of George Bush on an issue of national
Gleeful, and shamelessly
hypocritical. If a citizen of the UAE walked into an airport in
full burnoose and flowing robes, speaking only Arabic, Democrats
would be deeply offended, and might even sue, if the security
people were to give him any more scrutiny than they would to my
sweet 84-year-old mother.
denounce any thought of racial profiling. But when that same Arab,
attired in business suit and MBA, and with a good record running
ports in 15 countries, buys P&O, Democrats howl at the very
idea of allowing Arabs to run our ports. (Republicans are howling
too, but they don't grandstand on the issue of racial profiling.)
On this, the Democrats
are rank hypocrites. But even hypocrites can be right. There is
a problem. And the problem is not just the obvious one that an
Arab-run company, heavily staffed with Arab employees, is more
likely to be infiltrated by terrorists who might want to smuggle
an awful weapon into our ports. But that would probably require
some cooperation from the operating company. And neither the company
nor the government of the UAE, which has been pro-American and
a reasonably good ally in the war on terror, has any such record.
The greater and more
immediate danger is that as soon as the Dubai company takes over
operations, it will necessarily become privy to information about
security provisions at crucial U.S. ports. That would mean a transfer
of information about our security operations -- and perhaps even
worse, about the holes in our security operations -- to a company
in an Arab state in which there might be employees who, for reasons
of corruption or ideology, would pass this invaluable knowledge
on to al Qaeda-types.
That is the danger
and it is a risk, probably an unnecessary one. It's not quite
the end of the world that Democratic and Republican critics have
portrayed it to be. After all, the UAE, which is run by a friendly
regime, manages ports in other countries without any such incidents.
Employees in other countries could leak or betray us just as easily.
The issue, however, is that they are statistically more likely
to be found in the UAE than, for example, in Britain.
It's a fairly close
call. I can sympathize with the president's stubbornness in sticking
to the deal. He is responsible for our foreign relations, and
believes, not unreasonably, that it would harm our broader national
interest to reject and humiliate a moderate Middle Eastern ally
by pulling the contract just because a company is run by Arabs.
This contract should
have been stopped at an earlier stage, but at this point doing
so would cause too much damage to our relations with moderate
Arab states. There are no very good options. The best exit strategy
is this: (1) Allow the contract to go through; (2) give it heightened
scrutiny by assigning a team of U.S. government agents to work
inside the company at least for the first few years to make sure
security is tight and information closely held; (3) have the team
report every six months to both the executive and a select congressional
Not nearly as clean
as the Harriet Miers exit. But as I said, there are no very good
options. There have not been very many since Britannia stopped
ruling the waves, and it all fell to us.
2006, Washington Post Writers Group