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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

A Mess of Portage

Hey, I'm kinda proud of this article. It took me much longer than usual, because I thought it should incorporate a number of elements. The challenge was to try to keep all the moving parts in balance; I hope that I finally succeeded.

The Dubai port deal looks awful and smells worse. Time for Bush to get the FYI that the UAE deal is DOA. By threatening a veto today, he set himself up for a serious hurting in the offing. The public won't tar him for feathering his bed but they will tar-and-feather him for being obdurate at the wrong time.

Here's a peek:

Apparently I'm dead.

There can be no other explanation; I have always maintained that I would never live long enough to agree with Charles Schumer about anything. Still, it is ironic that my first posthumous column has to be in support of his position. He is in favor of chucking the recently announced dubious Dubai-U.S. deal to have that Arab emirate operate our major ports in New York and Miami. To be more precise, a quote-company-unquote quote-based-unquote in Dubai.


Hunter Baker said...

I cannot believe that saving a deal for a United Arab Emirates commercial concern would be the occasion for Bush's first ever exercise of the veto pen. My mind just keeps going back to 2000 when I dropped my subscription to World Magazine because they were in the tank for Bush and way too anti-McCain.

tbmbuzz said...

It seems to me there is a huge misunderstanding of what this is all about. This deal has nothing to do with security at U.S. ports, which is under the auspices of the Coast Guard, Dept of Homeland Security, Customs and other U.S. (and state/local) govt entities. American longshorement will still be doing the work. It is only upper management of the COMMERCIAL activities that will change - from a foreign firm whose country (Britain), a firm ally of the U.S., contains some terrorists to another country, a firm ally of the U.S., which also contains some terrorists.

I am not surprised at the knee jerk reaction to this deal by some on the right, but those on the left who oppose this deal strike me as blatant hypocrites, the same crowd that denies involvement by Saddam's Iraq in global terrorism and which preaches the horrors of racial profiling now is willing to tar a crucial U.S. ally because they are ARABS.

The big problem here is the Bush administration's continuing incompetency in getting its message out.

Jay D. Homnick said...

Who'd 'a thunk it? Michele Malkin's column today appropriates my line that the deal "looks bad and smells worse". Is that a common phrase that you run into all the time?

Hunter Baker said...

It's a semi-common expression, Jayster.

Kathy Hutchins said...

It's a semi-common expression, Jayster.

You know, I'd have thought so too; yet when I googled the phrases "looks bad and smells worse" and the variant "even worse" I got surprisingly few hits. And Jay probably won't be happy to know the #8 hit on the second variant was the (now defunct) home page of the "Crazy Atheist Libertarian."

Matt Huisman said...

tbmbuzz>> The big problem here is the Bush administration's continuing incompetency in getting its message out.

Amen, brother. I don't think there's enough time to salvage this issue - but Team Bush has only itself to blame for their unbelievable incompetence in getting the message out...on anything.

The only effective Talking Points memos they have are the ones that contain hyperlinks to conservative columnists.

Jay D. Homnick said...

Since I submitted my article last night, I have listened to sizeable swaths of the Hugh Hewitt, Bill Bennett and Laura Ingraham shows, featuring a number of distinguished guests - defense expert Gaffney, international relations professor Hirschenson and Congressman King.

It has been immensely gratifying to hear that I hit all their main points...

1) It ain't a company, it's a country.
2) It's a country with a bad track record.
3) Strange bedfellows here when guys like me are on board with Schumer (or as Laura said, "I can't believe I'm agreeing with Hillary").
4) The President gets stubborn at the wrong moments.
5) The veto would be overridden if used.
6) This is the wrong time to use a first veto, when there is bipartisan opposition.
7) It's a good idea to "send a signal" that it will take MANY years of proving yourself before you earn this type of trust.

As for my original insight that hiring the repressive governments to contain the repressive terrorists is the protection racket writ large, that's what they call in Hebrew "nofach mishelo" (a little spark of his own to add to the fire).

JC said...

It would be one thing if we were talking about Iran or something, but from what I understand the country in question is an "ally in our war on terror." I think Bush is right that we need to seriously consider the "message" we send if we tell a cooperative Arab country that we don't trust them---because, well, they're Arab. I have yet to see any evidence of a serious national security threat here, as long as the Coast Guard & co. do their job.

Tbmbuzz, you're right about the right's reaction (Arabs / national security), and I think the left may be having a knee-jerk reaction to argue with anything that comes out of Bush's mouth.

You guys are right about the veto, though... if Congress is really serious about this then I doubt Bush really has anything to say.

Jay D. Homnick said...

Two of the 9/11 hijackers were from the UAE and all of the financing was done through their banks. Afterwards, they refused to come forth with the banking info.

They were one of the last three countries to recognize the Taliban government and one of their princes publicly visited Bin-Laden in Afghanistan.

Some ally.

If they prove themselves over a ten-year period, we can reconsider.

JC said...

It is Dubai who is supposedly our ally. I see that Dubai is a member of UAE, of which the things you said are true. I guess the question is, if we didn't support (say) the EU but we did want to trade with Spain, what to do?

At this point I'm rather ambivalent. We do want to send the message that helpful countries like Dubai won't be lumped in the "Axis of Evil" through guilt be association, but I'm not too comfortable with the UAE having a hand in major port operations.

KeithM, Indy said...

Well then, should port management (whatever that actual entails) be solely owned and operated by the government???

Are we any more compentent or secure?

Didn't we just convict 2-3 terrorists in central Ohio?

I don't know enough about this issue to make a decision.

About the only thing I agree with is more investigation needs to be done. And it looks like the law wasn't followed with regards to this deal (see Michelle Malkins post for that.)

You also have to wonder why this didn't cause a stink back in November when it first broke the surface, with the bid for P&O

tbmbuzz said...

And it looks like the law wasn't followed with regards to this deal (see Michelle Malkins post for that.)

What law wasn't followed? What laws were broken? Neither Michelle Malkin nor any other critics of the deal have proven that any laws were broken or that due diligence was not followed by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a multiagency panel that includes representatives from the departments of Treasury, Defense and Homeland Security, and which has the responsibility by law to vet commercial deals such as this one.

You also have to wonder why this didn't cause a stink back in November when it first broke the surface, with the bid for P&O

From WSJ editorial:

" The timing of this sudden uproar is also a tad suspicious. A bidding war for the British-owned P&O has been going on since last autumn, and the P&O board accepted Dubai's latest offer last month. The story only blew up last week, as a Florida firm that is a partner with P&O in Miami, Continental Stevedoring and Terminals Inc., filed a suit to block the purchase. Miami's mayor also sent a letter of protest to Mr. Bush. It wouldn't be the first time if certain politicians were acting here on behalf of private American commercial interests. "

Note my emphasis on "commercial". If this deal were about managing the SECURITY of the nation's ports, then it would be a different story. But it isn't.

James F. Elliott said...

The true scandal in this matter is one of corruption, not security.

1) The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (chaired by the Secretary of the Treasury) is required, by federal law, to conduct a 45-day investigation into all deals where an investment by a foreign state-owned business may have implications for national security - management of ports being one such occasion. By that same law, the president must then okay the deal. No such investigation occurred, and the president claims to have had no knowledge of the Dubai Ports World deal. At worst, this is breaking the law; at best, it's shirking legal duties.

2) Treasury Secretary Snow has had prior lucrative dealings with DPW. I don't think there's any actual evidence of wrongdoing, nor do I think there was anything untoward, but the appearance of impropriety is there.

3) Bush's nominee to the US's chief maritime post is currently an executive for... Dubai Ports World.

I'd say the scandal is far more mundane and far more sordid than terrorism.

Matt Huisman said...

James, if there's anything to get 'worked up' about here, you're probably the closest. The behind the scenes vetting probably gets a bit lax from time to time. But on balance, I'm not really sure what they would get worked up about.

There are all kinds of private terminal operators at these ports. P&O is one of the larger ones. Every terminal, which includes two-bit operators and multi-national corporations is supposed to do their part in the GWOT. But ultimately, security is the responsibility of the Coasties and the Port Authority.

All the terminal operators hire out of the same union hall, in which there is little to no turnover due to strong union protectionism. (BTW, if you wanted to cite a real security risk, try the resistance to modernization by the longshoremen. There's just no way to audit shipments effectively without a drastic production improvement by those guys. I'm sure we'll here about this next.)

Unless ports now come with built-in nuc-u-lar reactors, I have a hard time seeing what sort of super-duper secrets there might be with respect to port design or security.

It's waterfront. It's cranes. It's all happening in broad daylight. Everybody knows everybody else at these places.

It's not Los Alamos.

James F. Elliott said...

I remember back in my college days during my national security classes, Dr. Nincic would have us come up with security exercises: Research what would be the most effective and likely to succeed terrorist attacks.

My group came up with two scenarios (in 1999):

1) Hijack a commercial airliner. Fly said commercial airliner into nearby metropolitan area, preferably a large building, financial district, or public landmark.

2) Get a big boat, like an old oil tanker or cargo ship. Pack a large shipping container with fertilizer and oil or gas. Place one gram or so of nuclear material into explosive slush. Detonate in large harbor: Baltimore, New York, Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco/Oakland. Detonate in harbor or port. Dirty bomb aerosolizes and a large economic/residential hub becomes unlivable for years.

We settled on both because they were highly vulnerable targets. A couple of determined guys with sharpened pens could take over a plane (at the time). Ports search a tiny fraction of the shipping that goes through them, are major economic hubs, and tend to be located within or close to significant urban centers.

The threat is very real, but more in general than from any specific corporation.

It's interesting that you'd bring up the longshoremen. My one union experience was a profoundly negative one.

KeithM, Indy said...

what James Elliot said in 1)...

My home computer is giving me fits right now, but Michelle Malkin certainly had a section dealing with how the panel should have automatically kicked the 45 day rule into effect, which would require to be signed by the President (IF I'm recalling what I read correctly.)

Evanston2 said...

Matt, I gotta agree with you and disagree with Mr. Homnick et al. I worked in a port environment with stevedores, security etc. for 3 1/2 years and another year long-distance. If this is a port ops contract, it shouldn't be a big deal. If Bush uses his veto, I will be impressed. It takes cajones to face down both parties and a simplistic story line ("Arabs take over U.S. ports") when the plain fact is that security is a separate function. JFE is right to highlight port operations as a national security concern, but smuggling/theft by longshoremen is as old as the shipping biz. If we need to screen every employee, then we need to screen every employee, regardless of nationality or whoever ultimately owns the stock. In sum, it's simple: the solution is effective security procedures regardless of the nationality of the corporation.

Matt Huisman said...

Well then, you know about the security issues better than I do. I'm more familiar with New Orleans and Chicago ports - a far cry from the others - but similar nonetheless.

The problem with this whole mess is that no one can defend how meaningless the security issue is because it means letting people know how minimal our security actually is. This isn't an airport with a baggage x-ray machine. Thousands of containers come loaded from God-knows-where and are slung around the docks. No one ever looks in these things.

Screening employees would be fine with me; there really aren't that many to keep up with once you get going. But the problems remain. No one knows what's in those containers. No one could stop a renegade ship captain from ramming the dock or another ship. It is what it is.

Matt Huisman said...

Here's Robert Kaplan's take on the whole thing (from an interview with Hugh Hewitt):

HH: Now with that background, does the control of the ports issue, the sale of these ports operations, not security, to United World Ports of Dubai, does it concern you?

RK: I mean, to the degree that the U.S. can still be in control of personnel working there, and security, I have no problem with Dubai's competence at running a port as well or better than we do. And it's part of the process of globalization, and at this point, if you tell them no, simply because they're Arabs, you're going to lose a lot more in the Arab world than you'd ever gain by a marginal improvement in security. And I think the security issue can probably be gotten around without tearing up the contract.

HH: What is that security issue in your mind, Robert Kaplan?

RK: It's about control of who the personnel are who have access to the port, and to the security procedures that govern the port, and have access to the people who control who goes in and out of the secure areas.

HH: So there is a security issue. You just view the cost of killing the deal as too high?

RK: Yes. Absolutely.