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All sides turn on Bush over ports deal
From Russ Baker in New York
February 26, 2006

THE controversy engulfing the Republican Party over the leasing of US port facilities to a Dubai company is a reminder that reckless fear-mongering almost always has a boomerang effect.

For the past four years, the GOP has had America in a siege mentality about anything that can be labelled a threat to national security. The government has urged citizens to keep an eye on their neighbours and has demanded library borrowing records. Americans have grown accustomed to the ratcheting up of colour-coded “alerts” that have not preceded actual acts of terrorism but have heightened a sense of alarm. Meanwhile, the country is embroiled in a tempest over unauthorised domestic electronic surveillance supposedly necessitated by imminent threats.

Now, the revelation that the Bush administration has authorised Dubai Ports World (DPW), a United Arab Emirates government-owned firm, to take over management of facilities at key American ports has led not just critics, but the administration’s own supporters, to turn on it. The takeover comes as part of the purchase by DPW of British-owned ports terminal operator P&O, which has long had a presence in Newark, Miami, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Baltimore and elsewhere.

Concerns centre on Dubai’s professed sympathies for some radical causes, including an endorsement by the United Arab Emirates (of which Dubai is one) of the Taliban as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan, the fact that two of the 9/11 hijackers were from the UAE and the past role of the UAE as a money-laundering hub for terrorists.

Still, few actually believe that DPW or the UAE sultans would use a business venture as a Trojan horse to attack Americans, who have been long-time allies. Besides, port security itself stays in American hands.

But the apparently pro forma approval process by the administration – without consulting Congress – has Americans of all political stripes up in arms. Tough statements by mayors and governors and a lawsuit filed by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey have also piled on the pressure.

With their control of Congress threatened in this year’s elections, House and Senate Republicans cannot afford to stand by the president on this. Moreover, plenty of those Republicans have bought into the president’s state-of-fear oratory, and feel discomfited by the recent developments.

As a result, the administration has been backpedalling, while insisting the deal will still go through. Bush’s chief political aide, Karl Rove, was dispatched to the administration-friendly Fox News to send the message that members of Congress would be “fully briefed” before anything is finalised. DPW has said it would not immediately exercise direct control over the ports.

The ports conflict goes to the very issue the administration sells to its political base: that it is better than the Democrats at protecting Americans. As with Hurricane Katrina, both Bush and the man ostensibly in charge (in this case the Treasury secretary, John Snow) claim they were out of the decision-making loop. Nevertheless, Bush and his family have long-standing and well-known personal and business ties with the monarchies of the Gulf . (According to the Associated Press, a UAE sheikh contributed at least $1 million towards the building of the George Bush Presidential Library.)

Meanwhile, both Snow and Bush’s nominee for the job of US maritime administrator have prior business connections with DPW – an issue that has thus far garnered minimal attention, but is typical of the penchant of the Bush White House to install in regulatory agencies people from the very industries they are to oversee.

Lurking in the background are concerns about the vulnerability of the US economy. That Americans have increasingly ceded pieces of their country to foreigners feels like a tacit admission of weakness, even if it can be dressed up as a natural concomitant of globalisation.

For Republicans, maintaining their majority in the Senate and House is the paramount concern. If they have their way, the public will not blame the Republican Party; mid-level officials will take the blame, and some diplomatic solution will surface.

But Bush may find that his Teflon coating has finally worn off completely. And this could have ramifications all the way to 2008, when his successor is chosen.

26 February 2006

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