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March 9, 2006
A Dreadful Interlude For All Involved

With the announcement that Dubai Ports World will sell off its American contracts acquired during the purchase of P&O, the embarrassing episode appears to have drawn to a close. Some people failed to get the message even after John Warner delivered it on the Senate floor, however. Harry Reid, who acted like a petulant child denied his dessert, insisted that a Senate vote be held on a deal that no longer existed so that Senate Democrats could express themselves. Saying that the "devil is in the details", the Senate Minority Leader angrily told a press conference that the Republicans insisted on up-or-down votes on judicial nominees and the Democrats want the same for their legislation -- ignoring that Reid has blocked votes for a dozen nominees, and none of them were as dead as the DPW takeover of American port operations.

Reid is just the latest person to make a fool out of himself in the morass of the DPW/P&O deal. It proves that momentum applies to stupidity as well as objects in motion, and not even the irrelevance of further debate on a deal that doesn't exist is enough to stop it. He and presumptive presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton have done their best to rescue defeat at the threshold of victory, but they are not alone in their embarrassment.

Let's look at all the entities that covered themselves in glory in this episode and try to take it in chronological order:

1. Department of Treasury

Regardless of the banality of this deal and the precedents of state-controlled operators from China and Saudi Arabia at other American ports, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US should have understood the political implications of port security transferring from a British-based public corporation to a state-owned company based in the Middle East. They bypassed rules requiring a 45-day delay for approving such ownership intended to allow a more thorough investigation, and then acted like the American people had forgotten all about the war on Islamist terror. At the very least, they should have prepared their superiors at Treasury of the touchy nature of the deal. And Treasury should have understood it without having it explained to them in small words.

2. The Press and The New Media

The mainstream media had reported this proposed deal between DPW and P&O since last fall, with little analysis of the implications for American port operations. Until a few weeks ago, the story languished as a boring bureaucratic transaction by a boring bureaucracy about a subject few knew much about. Until radio blowhard Michael Savage grabbed onto the story, the media could have cared less. However, Savage managed to fan the deal into a veritable blaze of hysteria -- and instead of informing the public of all the nuances of the story, the initial reporting followed Savage's lead. Reporters and columnists talked about American ports being sold to Arabs and the outsourcing of security to foreign governments. When the actual facts of the deal started coming out, the time for rational discussion of the deal and the status of all American ports had passed, and the hysteria had all the momentum.

3. The White House

We now know that senior members of the administration did not get briefed on this deal due to the assumption by Treasury that the transaction was unexceptional. They have an excuse, then, for not getting ahead of the deal in the first place. However, when the news did break, the White House did nothing to help themselves. Instead of fighting the misinformation with a sustained effort to educate people about American port operations and the nature of the P&O contracts in play, the White House went into what can only be called Harriet Miers mode. They accused critics of being xenophobes and anti-Arab bigots, including a large number of conservatives upset at an apparent lack of focus on national security.

When that approach obviously failed, Bush failed to address the criticisms directly, instead insisting that people should trust his judgment. Most of us do trust Bush but also have seen a lack of effort in securing the southern border (as well as the nomination of Harriet Miers), which has always been a point of contention between Bush and the conservatives. Until the past forty-eight hours, the White House didn't marshal the efforts of the military leaders in the war on terror, whose endorsement of the deal early in this issue may have squelched the controversy before it turned ridiculous.

4. The Blogosphere

Too many of us jumped to the conclusion we saw when the media first reported this deal, myself included. When it became apparent that the facts had been badly misrepresented, some decided that further criticism equated to either xenophobia or bigotry (echoing the White House) or an inability to see past the media's supposed chicanery. Others assumed that those bloggers who dropped their objections either had become Bush toadies or more concerned with money than national security. This name-calling continues to this hour by otherwise respectable and rational bloggers, and both sides ignore that the deal has enough complexities and implications for national security and the war on terror for both sides to make entirely rational arguments for either supporting or opposing the deal. For some reason, online commenters stopped assuming that their friends and colleagues operate from sincere beliefs and honest motivations.

5. Congress

When the White House finally recovered its wits, stopped issuing threats and insults, and negotiated a second and more extensive security review and attempted to involve Congress in the effort, the hysteria got the best of them. After demanding that the White House cooperate with Congress and allow them a voice in the decision and getting agreement, they promptly shifted direction and told the White House that they weren't interested in more information on the transaction. Even as late as last night, we had Congressmen demonstrating an embarrassing level of ignorance of the ports deal. Jerry Lewis (R-CA) promised to ensure that the ports remained in American hands when the deal involved a transaction between the current British operator and the Dubai buyer. Only two weeks into the six-week investigation, the House Appropriations Committee passed legislation forbidding Dubai from operating terminals in the United States -- but had nothing to say about the current Chinese and Saudi operators that have operated terminals in American ports for almost a decade or more. It also didn't address the operation of state-owned foreign airlines in almost every international airport in the US.

It's a rare event indeed that leaves everyone involved diminished in some capacity. This, unfortunately, was one of them, and I'm glad it's almost over.

UPDATE: Fixed the numbering; h/t Monkyboy.

UPDATE II: Doug from Bogus Gold defends the blogosphere by noting that some bloggers did not fall into the trap I described above.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at March 9, 2006 7:33 PM

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