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March 8, 2006
A Spoonful Of Panic Helps The Majority Go Down

House Republicans on the Appropriations Committee abandoned the effort by the White House to give the Dubai Ports World deal a second, more thorough security review and voted 62-2 to amend an emergency appropriation bill with language specifically making any attempt to engage DP World in port operations illegal. The GOP joined all of the committee Democrats in slamming the door on any further negotiations with the UAE port-management firm:

In an election-year repudiation of President Bush, a House panel dominated by Republicans voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to block a Dubai-owned firm from taking control of some U.S port operations.

By 62-2, the Appropriations Committee voted to bar DP World, run by the government of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, from holding leases or contracts at U.S. ports.

Bush has promised to veto any such measure passed by Congress, but there is widespread public opposition to the deal and the GOP fears losing its advantage on the issue of national security in this fall's elections.

"This is a national security issue," said Rep. Jerry Lewis, the chairman of the panel. The California Republican said the legislation would "keep America's ports in American hands."

The merits and demerits of the deal have become irrelevant in the panicked atmosphere that appears to have afflicted Congressional Republicans. Regardless of the merits of the deal -- which I still don't like -- a second review would have allowed the White House to calm the hysteria and at least have an opportunity to get the facts on the table.

The quote above gives a great example of the level of ignorance that has surrounded this issue since its explosion in February. American ports have always been in American hands, regardless of the nationality of the port operators. America owns its ports, and the Coast Guard and Homeland Security have the responsibility of securing them. If Lewis intended to say that port operation would remain in American hands, then he's still demonstrating a high degree of ignorance -- because the ports in question had been under British management up to now. Most American ports have foreign operators, including state-owned/controlled companies from Saudi Arabia and mainland China.

All this hysteria does is make the Republicans look as foolish and uninformed as Democrats. Instead of focusing on the hypocrisy of the opposition party (under whose administration the Chinese and Saudis took over management of American ports, and whose last President has been advising the UAE on the deal) in pushing ethnic profiling for port operators but not for immigration and airport security, the GOP has abandoned its President and a reasonable offer to suspend the deal pending review and oversight by Congress at the end of it. They could have waited for that review and allowed all the facts to come to light, and then made an informed and rational decision to kill it. This measure is the equivalent of putting hands over ears and shouting nonsense to avoid hearing any debate.

'm not convinced that this deal was a good idea under any circumstances. However, properly structured, we could have created an American group under American management that would represent DPW interests and allow for a reasonable compromise that would still satisfy security concerns. With the resources of DPW, that American subsidiary may have grown to the point where it could reasonably compete for other operations, such as those controlled by the Saudis and the Chinese, giving us an even better grip on our ports. Perhaps it would not have been possible, but it certainly won't happen now.

Now what do we do with the ports under the control of Saudi, Chinese, and Singaporean operators? Do we kick them out -- and if we so, who then replaces them and in what kind of time frame? Do we bar any state-owned entity from port management, regardless of nationality? That's my main objection; a state-owned company represents the interests of the state before the interests of business and profit, and we will not have an opportunity to react quickly enough if their state interests suddenly change to hostility towards the US. That seems like a rational prerequisite to securing our ports, and DPW fails in that regard, unless they partner with outside investors to establish an American subsidiary that would find its motivation in ensuring safe and secure business transactions.

A rational debate could have answered these questions. Instead the House GOP has panicked, damaged the administration, and created a liability for their own party rolling into the midterm elections. This doesn't serve the country or the Congress well, even if I agree with the end result. They turned a controversy into an unnecessary debacle.

UPDATE: My two friends at Power Line, John Hinderaker and Scott Johnson, disagree with each other on this development. John agrees with me:

This is a mistake, I think, in both policy and political terms. I've seen no evidence that ownership of port terminals by DP World would create any security issues, or, for that matter, bring about any change in the manner in which the facilities are run, or the identity of the people running them. Politically, it appears that many Republicans are nervous about November's election and anxious to put some distance between themselves and President Bush. This strikes me as a foolish calculation; surely the Republicans will be better off if they stick together. The headlines generated by this kind of party split--the ports issue is almost entirely symbolic, and is all about headlines--will do more to hurt Republican Congressional candidates than help them, I think.

Scott, however, says that the political threat to the GOP is real and required this action:

I think Republican Senators and Congressmen justifiably fear the unpopularity of the DPW deal and the devastating use to which a vote in its favor could be put by their political opponents. I don't have the knowledge necessary to evaluate the deal on the merits, but I think it is politically untenable.

I think that the truth lies somewhere in between. I do think that there are some substantive security issues in allowing a state-owned company to manage ports, and I would have welcomed a rational debate on the topic. Instead, as John wrote to me in an e-mail, the committee's Republicans have formed a circular firing squad.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at March 8, 2006 6:00 PM

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