Storm in a port (now updated)

I’ve had a few people ask me for my opinion regarding our Generalissimo-in-Chief ramming through an agreement to outsource management of several U.S. ports to a state owned Arabic shipping company, without any of the legally mandated review periods or even a moment of Congressional consultation.

I have a few thoughts about it, I guess. Before that, though, let’s take a look at what some of the people who get a lot more hits than I do have to say about it:

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Atrios sez:

Washington Post:

The United Arab Emirates provides docking rights for more U.S. Navy ships than any other nation in the region, Warner noted. He added: "If they say they have not been treated fairly in this, we run the risk of them pulling back some of that support at a critical time of the war."

This is precisely the point. State actors have different interests than at least the idealized view of business actors. The latter are pursuing profit, the former are pursuing a variety of interests. While in practice the world is not as neatly divided up like that as it should be, when you completely merge business deals and diplomacy you've got problems, especially when those business deals involve port security issues. Handing the keys of our ports over to a foreign government which is pursuing a variety of interests is not such a good idea, especially when that government is a hereditary oligarchy and not a liberal democracy.

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Josh Marshall notes:

Looking at the "secret agreement" the White House seems to have leaked this afternoon, here's one point that sort of stands out.

The administration did not require Dubai Ports to keep copies of business records on U.S. soil, where they would be subject to court orders. It also did not require the company to designate an American citizen to accommodate U.S. government requests. Outside legal experts said such obligations are routinely attached to U.S. approvals of foreign sales in other industries.

The failure to require the company to keep business records on US soil sounds like a pretty open invitation to flout US law as near as I can tell. Forget terrorism. This is the sort of innovative business arrangement I would think a number of Bush-affiliated American companies might want to get in on. Perhaps Halliburton could be domiciled in Houston, pay its taxes in Bermuda, do its business in Iraq and keep its business records in Jordan.

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Kevin Drum advises (it’s long, but read it all, he’s making some excellent points):


I'm still open to argument on the Dubai port deal, but this is looking more and more like a mindless feeding frenzy to me. So far, I've only heard a couple of arguments against the deal that are even colorable.

First, Atrios points out that Dubai Ports World (DPW) isn't a private company, it's a state-owned company. It's one thing to have a foreign company operating some of our shipping terminals, but a foreign state?

The problem is that this is just the nature of the shipping business. As the Financial Times reports, state-owned companies already operate terminals in the U.S., including China Shipping at the Port of Los Angeles and APL (owned by Singapore's state-owned NOL) in Oakland. "The US container port industry would be unworkable without companies controlled by foreign governments," says a British analyst. Furthermore, DPW and Singapore's state-owned PSA are the third and fourth largest port operators in the world, and China's Hutchison Ports already refuses to invest in the U.S. If all of these firms are shut out of the country, we lose access to some of the best and most efficient port operators in the world.

Second, Matt Yglesias notes that "Giving Bush the benefit of the doubt is not a sound policy as a general matter." That's an excellent point. And causing Bush some political pain is a worthy goal.

But there are limits, and encouraging the xenophobic jingoism that's driving this controversy is a little too much for me. Unless there are serious substantive reasons to oppose this deal, I'm not willing to jump on the bandwagon solely because it's an opportunity for some righteous Bush bashing.

I also did a bit of Googling to find out what a few actual port operators thought of this deal last week before it turned into quite such a media circus. They seemed pretty sangune about the whole thing:

New Orleans: Gary LaGrange, president and chief executive of the New Orleans port, said he was surprised by the sale but not overly concerned.

Baltimore: F. Brooks Royster III, director of the Maryland Port Administration, which oversees the public marine terminals, said an infusion of money from Dubai Ports World might help the port expand. Two days later: "They’re not here to insert terrorists into the country....I don’t have a concern in that regard."

Philadelphia: William P. McLaughlin, public affairs director for the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority, which owns major general-cargo terminals on the Pennsylvania side of the river, said security and other port operations issues are spelled out in the lease and should not be affected by the change.

Miami: Port of Miami-Dade executives aren't concerned. "They are not buying the Port of Miami," said Deputy Port Director Khalid Salahuddin. "They are buying part of one of the operators at the port."

Tampa: Amid growing criticism of a deal to give a United Arab Emirates company a major presence in U.S. ports, Tampa Port Authority commissioners....authorized port director Richard Wainio to sign a contract to bring the British company at the center of the controversy to Tampa to run cargo handing at the public agency's docks.... Wainio called the deal with P&O a critical step for the port and the region.

What's more, as I noted earlier, dock workers themselves would continue to be American union members, and port security would continue to be provided by the Coast Guard and U.S. customs. It also seems noteworthy that DPW's acquisition of P&O would give it control of port operations in lots of other countries besides the U.S., including P&O's home country of Great Britain, and everyone else seems to be OK with that. What do we think we know that Britain and Belgium don't?

In the end, there's nothing left to this controversy except the raw question of whether the government of the United Arab Emirates is sympathetic to international terrorism and therefore likely to implement policies that would make it easier for al-Qaeda to infiltrate ports in the U.S. — something most analysts seem to think is pretty far-fetched. God knows I wouldn't mind some congressional oversight on this question, especially if it prompted some serious action on actual port security, but if turns out that the UAE is really untrustworthy then I'd like to find someplace else for the Navy to park their ships too. The port of Dubai is the busiest port of call for the United States Navy outside the continental United States.

In the absence of serious evidence of untrustworthiness, though, I'd prefer to walk the liberal internationalism walk instead of jumping ship for short term political gain. I've said before that engaging seriously with the Arab world is the best way of fighting terrorism, and I meant it. This is a chance to do exactly that.

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Glenn Greenwald mentions, in passing:

NSA scandal and Portgate - a perfect match

When this port controversy erupted yesterday, I thought that it might be prudent to wait a few days before activating the focused, state-based campaign designed to influence the NSA investigations which Jane Hamsher, John Amato and I described a couple of days ago. I originally thought that with the media attention focused for the time being on the Administration's growing port problem and seemingly intractable dispute with Congressional Republicans, it might be difficult to induce people to pay attention to the NSA scandal until the port dispute settled down a little.

But after thinking about it more and talking further with those who have begun to participate in our project, I actually think the reverse is true -- that the serious split between the Administration and their formerly compliant Congressional allies is, for many reasons, the perfect framework in which to press for real Congressional investigations into the NSA scandal. The emergence of this sharp wedge between the Congress and White House, as well as the distrust of the White House which the port controversy is generating, create the ideal groundwork for agitating for Congressional investigations.

The principal argument which has been invoked by the President's apologists for suppressing investigations -- namely, that we should blindly trust the President on national security matters and that Congress has no business investigating the President's decisions concerning the "war on terror"-- is entirely obviated by the port controversy. In response to demands for an NSA investigation, it will now ring intuitively false for any Republican Senator to claim that Congress has no role to play, or that the Administration should be trusted with no oversight, when it comes to making decisions about how to defend the nation.

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John Rogers makes some good points of his own -

Basically, if the Administration's stupid enough to be outsourcing your port security because they have a nigh religious belief in privitization that over-rides any common sense, nay, their sacred responsibility to the people who actually goddam voted for them, then the UAE company is barely any worse than any other company. It's like deciding to let your child drink bleach instead of lye.

And then I have to turn right around and disagree with Kevin Drum. Bastich. Anyway, he indicates that jumping on this story isn't the sort of engage-the-average-Muslim attitude we enlightened liberals should be encouraging. He kind of misses the point that the UAE is a monarchy -- a particularly nasty one -- and that the massive amounts of monies from this deal will go directly into their coffers. The coffers of people who literally have lunch with Osama Bin Laden. Cut up his steak, refill his glass of chianti, that sort of pally-pal.

This deal isn't going to help the economy of a bunch of swing-voter type middle class UAE citizens who will use the money to send their kids to Western colleges. This will help enrich the already insanely rich royal family in Dubai who hang with Bad Guys. I mean, if we can't set as a standard "You know what, if you hang out with Osama, you don't get to do multi-billion dollar deals in our country", where the hell is the bar for repercussions? "Okay, you can enrich yourselves at our expense even if you hang with and support Bin Laden, but if you blow him, this deal is OFF!"

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And then there’s Digby

He needs to be secretly spy on American citizens without a warrant and he needs to be able to hold them indefinitely in jail without a trial and he needs to be able to torture innocent people with impunity because we just can't be too careful after 9/11.

But there's no reason to go overboard by saying that we shouldn't outsource our port management to a company owned by a state whose leaders have been known to hang out with bin Laden.

Perhaps the best way to put this is that the administration seems to trust the leaders of the United Arab Emirates more than the US congress or the secret FISA Court.

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All right. Coming out the other side of all that, what do I think about it?
I have a couple of thoughts. First, it’s interesting to me just how carefully liberals are putting their feet down in this mess. On the one hand, the big name lefty bloggers seem very happy that Bush has stuck his head into a political cannon without realizing it; on the other hand, the last thing they want to do is seem to be opportunistic about it (that’s much too Republican/Rovian for them) and the next to last thing they want to do is to seem like they are indulging in anti-Arab, anti-Muslim hate speech, because, you know, liberals just don’t do that kind of thing. (Me, I loathed Arabic culture and much of what I knew of the Islamic religion long before 9/11 made it trendy to do so; I can recall being taken to task for some ‘hateful’ comments on the inherent violence and misogyny of the Persian Middle East that I published on an APA back in the early 90s.)

You may want to switch ‘last’ and ‘next to last’ up there from one lefty blogger to another; some will have one priority, others another. But it’s interesting to see how carefully the left is picking its way through this thing. All told, it’s not a bad thing, though, and it’s typical of the difference between right and left in this country, and showcases what the right sees (and exploits) as a fundamental lefty weakness – where the right will simply jump in howling whenever its sensibilities are affronted and its fury is provoked, the left takes the time to look things over carefully, think things through, and try to find the most reasonable approach.

What’s more interesting to me is watching Bush get locked down on his own interrogation table while his patented fear machine starts applying the electrodes to the Chief Executive’s genitalia. Bush’s regime has spent the last five years beating the terror drum, whipping their base into a frenzied froth by waving the red flag of Islamofascism at every opportunity. Now the Cheney Gang turns around and cuts a pretty typical insider deal with some of their long standing Arabic cronies, figuring what the hell, this isn’t politics, this is just business, and everyone out there should understand that and just play along… and suddenly they are caught in the gears of their own political threshing mill. The only person in North America who can’t understand the irony here is Alanis Morrisette.

What’s most interesting of all to me here, in a grim, mind numbingly tragic way, is how poorly this whole thing reflects on our culture and our nation. This is what the political faction that currently runs America chooses to get upset about? This is the issue that finally divides Bush from his base and threatens to splinter the conservative movement in America? An illegal invasion of another country doesn’t bother them; troops sent into harm’s way without proper equipment is fine; declaring American citizens enemy combatants and locking them up indefinitely without trial or access to the outside world is peachy-keen; a covert network of secret prisons on foreign soil is five by five; torturing helpless prisoners, apparently to the point of sodomizing those prisoners’ children right in front of them, is cool; exposing national security secrets for petty political gains is no problemo, dude; free speech zones are just part of the post 9/11 world, and if the President wants to illegally and secretly eavesdrop on U.S. citizens, well, that’s just hunky-dory.

But, goddam… he wants to let some Arabs run a few of our ports? Get out the rope, Cletus!

This is what the right is finally going to tar, feather, and run Bush out of town on a rail over?

For the record, I don’t think it’s a great idea to let state owned foreign companies handle any sensitive U.S. business concerns, especially those that oversee commodities coming into the country. I especially think it’s a bad idea when those state owned foreign companies have strong ties to a guy who likes to hijack our airliners and blow up our buildings with lots of us inside. If this is how international shipping is done, then I’d like to see some substantial reforms implemented to international shipping.

Nonetheless, my strongest point remains: if this is the scandal that finally brings Bush down, well, it’s a disgrace and a shame to the U.S.A.

Of course, that’s appropriate; the Bush Administration has never been anything else.

UPDATE THE FIRST (I feel like Glenn Greenwald):

Brad DeLong has an interesting Hall of Mirrors style entry on his blog, quoting from another source who is quoting from yet another source in regard to the Port deal:

Dan Drezner defends the Bush administration's willingness to allow the UAE-OWNED P&O to buy U.S. ports: the FBI and CFIUS have approved it--and they to err on the side of preventing foreigners from buying U.S. businesses where national security is concerned. This is one of the few occasions where the Bush administration appears to be on the side of the angels: :: Daniel W. Drezner :: What's the big deal about the port deal? : I can certainly see why there's some political controversy about a firm owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates helping to run ports on the Eastern seaboard -- but after reading this Christian Science Monitor story by Alexandra Marks, I don't think there's any real basis for the kind of outrage I'm seeing....

P&O is not commenting on the political uproar over the deal. But a source within the company worries that the media and politicians are misrepresenting the arrangements. Other who work within the port communities agree. They note that P&O will not be "managing" the ports, as many news organizations have reported. Instead, the company is one of many that leases terminals at the port. "I've never quite seen a story so distorted so quickly," says Esther de Ipolyi, a public-relations executive who works with the port of Houston. "It's like I go to an apartment building that has 50 apartments, and I rent an apartment. This does not mean I took over the management of the whole building."...

[A]ll the facts were reviewed by the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States (CFIUS) earlier in the month. People aren't upset that there's been a review -- they're upset because there's been a review and the outcome is one they disagree with on a gut level.... There's been a lot of hot air in the blogosphere on this -- and even hotter air from the United States Senate and local politicians -- but I haven't seen anything approaching a rational, reality-based argument against this deal.

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What do I think of that? Not having any in depth knowledge of U.S. port operations, I apparently simply have to rely on the people who are declaring themselves experts all over the Internet.

In the case of the above addendum, though -- while it's an interesting point of view, and may well be accurate, still, there's part of me that's crying out "You want to trust someone who works for a public relations department?" And that's a voice I'm going to tend to listen to. I've known PR people, as well as marketing people and advertising people; they are, along with real estate lawyers, professional politicians, and drug addicts, among the least trustworthy people you are ever going to interact with in this world.

Which raises another point: while I think it was excellent journalism for Kevin Drum to Google search some quotes from various port officials in regard to this controversy, I'd be interested to know how these people vote and which parties they contribute money to in election years before I fully weigh their opinions on this. Even assuming none of them are simply saying what El Jefe wants them to say -- and El Jefe has himself quite a personality cult going, especially amongst authoritative business sorts (the types you'd expect to have positions of responsibility at large U.S. ports).

Beyond that, even if we rule out an insane "jawohl mein fuhrer!" slant to any of these various 'sangune' (sic) insights, it's still worth noting that all of these people are business folks, and their point of view is very much that of folks who pretty clearly would like to see a new customer/client/sucker with a lot of money step up to the board and slap some of it down on their square. Such people tend to view prospective customers in terms of how healthy their checkbook balance is, resolutely pushing aside any minor considerations like, you know, whether or not this increases the chances of Tampa going up in a uranium enriched fireball by a few percentage points. Such things tend to be regarded as unimportant compared to the enormous positive impact ten or twenty million development dollars is going to have on the local economic infrastructure, and people who bring up such concerns tend to be dismissed as anti-progress whiners who want to keep the local economy struggling.

All of which is to say, the folks Google-quoted by Drum are most likely blinded by the dollar signs in their eyes, and the PR person quoted by the Christian Science Monitor quoted by Dan Drezner quoted by Brad DeLong is most likely working for one of them.

So, I still think it's a bad idea to let the House of Saud rent a dock at one of our ports, or handle managing of one, or whatever the hell it is Bush is doing, and for that matter, I think it's probably a bad idea to let China do it, too. I mean, we can let ships dock at our ports without renting out the facilities to them, right?

Even if it isn't a bad idea in terms of security, it still strikes me that if there is anyone in the world we shouldn't be doing business with on straight up moral and ethical grounds, it's the House of Saud. But perhaps that's my anti-Arab prejudice showing.

UPDATE THE SECOND - Of course, I'm aware of the reason that the more rabid and zealous conservatives are upset at this business deal, while they have been largely indifferent to, or supportive of, all the other human rights violations enacted under El Jefe's watch -- conservates are deeply tribal people, who tend to regard everyone outside their 'tribe' as being somehow subhuman. To a conservative, everyone who isn't conservative is 'other' (one reason they hate American liberals so much is that conservatives are easily manipulated by patriotic buzzwords like 'American', and it offends and infuriates them that there are 'Americans' whom they not only disagree with, but whom they would actively like to see imprisoned or executed -- they would be much more comfortable in a world where every 'American' voted for Fearless Leader unanimously, hated fags, and sang, whistled, or hummed "Freedom isn't Free" in the car on the way to work in the morning).

'Others' are not entitled to the same legal protections and presumptions of civil liberties that 'real people' (i.e., conservatives) are. Everything Bush has done to date to proscribe the rights, liberties, and freedoms of various people in the world, be they Americans or non, can be (and are) perceived by conservatives as only impacting 'others'. Free speech zones, secret eavesdropping, enemy combatant status, secret prisons, torture of prisoners... this is all stuff that Bush's mindless base deeply believes will never have anything to do with them or anyone they care about. All this stuff is only to be used against 'others' -- evil foreigners or liberal 'American' traitors -- and if your conservative credentials are good enough, you needn't worry about Homeland Security knocking on your door.

So conservatives don't mind police state political policies that they feel have nothing to do with them, and they similarly don't mind Bush's rampant cronyism and the insider-trading style corruption that has defaced his administration like someone throwing acid in a crusading district attorney's face. All these financial scandals have, in the end, largely benefited rich, authoritative white guys, and right wingers, no matter how poor they are, largely revere rich authoritative white guys, and on some pre-verbal level, they have aborbed into their guts the notion that this is 'just business as usual'.

The port deal, on the other hand, pretty directly benefits goddam A-rabs, and the conservative mob has not only never been inclined to include little brown towelheads who worship some crazy camel-riding prophet within their personal tribal parameters, but lately they've had all their rich white authority figures exhorting them at length about how evil all these fucking dune coons are. The UAR is not only 'other', they are actually part of The Evil Others That Are Coming To Destroy Our Way Of Life. Bush and Co. have been playing that tune for five years now; they shouldn't be surprised when the audience continues to sing along even after they try to switch refrains, if only briefly, for the ten minutes it's going to take them to deposit a check.

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