*SECTION:* NEWS & COMMENTARY; Economy and Politics; Capitol Report
*LENGTH:* 1057 words
*HEADLINE:* On ports controversy, now Bush is the appeaser
*BYLINE:* Rex Nutting, MarketWatch mailto:email@example.com.
Rex Nutting is Washington bureau chief of MarketWatch.
WASHINGTON (MarketWatch) — President Bush picked a heckuva time to grow a backbone when he challenged Congress to block an Arab-owned firm’s purchase of the British company that operates many U.S. ports.
After years of demagoguery, of accusing his opponents of treason, of painting the world in stark tones of black and white, of saying “you’re either for us or against us,” Bush now finds himself on the losing side of the terror issue.
A large majority of the public and the Congress think Bush was being soft on terrorists by approving the $6.8 billion purchase of London-based P&O by Dubai Ports World.
Trust me, Bush said. We’ve examined this deal and it isn’t bad for our security.
But no one can trust Bush on his word alone. His administration’s credibility has been eroded by years of secrecy and misleading statements on everything from weapons of mass destruction to the costs of the Medicare drug plan.
For more than four years, the war on terror was Bush’s trump card and he played it well. Anyone who disagreed with the White House on strategy or tactics was branded an appeaser. The result: Republican victories in the congressional elections of 2002 and the presidential election in 2004.
His political adviser, Karl Rove, has boasted of his winning game plan: Don’t let anyone outflank you to the right on terrorism.
But now the politicization of the war on terror has finally caught up with Bush. He’s the one being called an appeaser and no possible set of facts can get him in the clear once the mud machine gears up.
There must be a very important principle to defend if Bush would abandon his winning modus operandi.
Such as free trade, perhaps?
Politics trumps trade
Bush himself defended the administration’s approval of the Dubai Ports World acquisition on free-trade grounds. Blocking the deal would send a bad message to the world about opening borders to trade and investment, Bush said.
Some Democrats point out that the ports deal approval comes at a time when the administration is trying to win approval of a bilateral trade agreement with the United Arab Emirates this year. By this theory, the White House is merely doing the bidding of corporate interests who fear that blocking the port deal could kill the trade pact.
Already, the UAE is the biggest buyer of U.S. goods and services in the Middle East, not counting Israel. In 2005, U.S. exports to the UAE totaled $8.5 billion, including $2.1 billion in aircraft sales. By contrast, imports from the UAE totaled $1.5 billion.
But how much bigger can U.S. exports grow with a faraway nation of just 2.5 million people? How many jumbo jets do they need?
No doubt, standing up for trade is an important principle at the White House. But not nearly as important as winning the next election.
Bush & Co. have repudiated free trade principles on countless occasions when it suited the president’s political fortunes. The steel tariffs, the farm subsidies and the constant disputes with Europe and Canada over illegal subsidies have more to do with domestic politics than with lofty notions of free trade.
There’s no reason to believe they’ve changed on that score.
Bungling the war
But the administration also has bungled the war on terror. It’s wasted hundreds of billions of dollars, cost thousands of lives, trampled on the Constitution, and seriously harmed the United States’ reputation as a nation devoted to human rights, justice and the rule of law.
Until now, the administration’s publicly recognized mistakes have all been on the side of excess. Its critics have said the administration’s war on terror has gone too far.
Less well-known are the administration’s failures to do enough.
Port security is particularly weak.
“The flurry of U.S. government initiatives since 9/11 suggests substantial progress is being made in securing the global trade and transportation system,” Stephen Flynn, a fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations, wrote in a recent article in the Far Eastern Economic Review. “Unfortunately, all this activity should not be confused with real capability,” he said, calling the current system a “house of cards” that is doomed to collapse.
While billions have been spent in Iraq and Afghanistan, funding for homeland security has been frugal.
Since 9/11, the federal government has provided about $700 million to improve port security, about one-tenth of the total cost of upgrading security, by some estimates. Only a small fraction of containers arriving in U.S. ports from overseas are physically inspected by Customs officers; most rely on a complex system of trusted shippers and inspections at foreign ports.
The other arm of maritime security, the Coast Guard, is stretched thin. It has received little extra funding despite extra responsibilities to protect the nation’s 3,700 seaports and cargo terminals.
Security at chemical plants is even worse. Because of foot dragging by the industry, many vulnerable facilities haven’t even been inspected by the Department of Homeland Security. The government is relying on voluntary compliance by these companies, many of which are owned by foreigners.
While it’s impossible to get a knitting needle on board an airplane, millions of Americans live close enough to a chemical plant to die in an accident. Some 123 plants are situated in dense urban areas where one accident or attack could threaten a million lives or more, according to congressional researchers.
Bush has rightfully condemned those who base their opposition to the ports deal strictly because the company is owned by Arabs.
“Those who purport that ports can be securely run by a British company, but not an Arab one, are engaging in racial profiling on the corporate level,” said Laila al-Qatami of the *American-Arab Anti-Discrimination* Committee.
However, it’s hard to reject the notion that the administration has engaged in racial profiling of its own, arresting and detaining thousands of Arabs and Muslims without ever bringing charges against them.
Bush is trying to explain away the ports deal by saying: These are good Arabs; they are our allies. But it’s too late for lines like that.
Because in the 9/11 climate of fear created by Bush, no one is above suspicion. Not even the president.
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