Port Protests

This column gets its share of e-mail correspondence. Some of it favorable.

A recent one merely commented on a current event, one that was largely under the radar at that point. Now it’s the epicenter of a national political firestorm.

So plaudits to Anthony Williams of Apollo Beach, who fired off a heat-seeking epistle upon seeing a CNN crawl about a United Arab Emirates’ (Dubai Ports World) company taking over operations of a number of major American seaports. (There are implications for Tampa as well.) For the record, before talk show hosts, mayors, police chiefs, certain East Coast governors, a senate oversight committee, Hillary Clinton and the White House weighed in, Williams was worried about the possibility of “hiring the fox to guard our henhouse.”

The metaphor may be alarmist and unfair to DPW, whose job isn’t “to guard” anything. That’s the purview of law enforcement and the U.S. Coast Guard and Customs.

But for an administration glaringly remiss in its efforts to allocate sufficient resources for the protection of our ports from terrorism, it’s an issue that, at minimum, begs more scrutiny. More than 2 billion tons of cargo come through America’s ports annually. Roughly 5% of the 9 million containers are inspected. And the UAE, lest we forget, has some unsettling connections – operational and financial – to Sept. 11.

Moreover, the UAE, although an ally that allows U.S. Customs to inspect exports to America, was a transfer point for shipments of smuggled nuclear components headed for Iran and North Korea. It was also one of the few countries to recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate government.

Nothing in a post-9/11 world is business as usual any more. The UAE has been cooperative with the U.S., and is hardly a terrorist hotbed. More than any of its brethren, it understands the global marketplace and what anti-modernity has done to undermine the Muslim cause. It is, however, what it is – even if it does host world-class golf and tennis tournaments. It’s a high-end Muslim monarchy that constantly straddles the line between its Western partners and its Muslim peers. Call it “ethnic” stereotyping (as MSNBC’s Chris Mathews, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio and others have) or prudent policy, but the UAE is not the UK. It’s just not.

(It should be noted that the controversy erupted when DPW agreed to buy out the previous operator, London-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co.)

Questions remain even for those not asking them. How confident can we be that the details of vetting personnel, for example, will be handled properly? Is there enough transparency? Was this a rush job by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which represents a dozen federal agencies? Is diligence still due? Is this analogous to the Chinese company that ultimately wasn’t allowed to buy UNOCAL?

This isn’t “outsourcing” security, but it is turning over all other operations, including the loading and unloading of everything, to DPW. Is there harm in buying time until the rhetoric recedes and there’s a strong, convincing consensus one way or the other?

Will this become another political hostage to polarized politics? Isn’t it a sign to stop and reflect when Senator Clinton can tack to the right of President Bush? Don’t we need a “time-out” when the president threatens to use his first-ever veto on this?

Or maybe we should just take administration experts at their word and let it ride.

“We make sure there are assurances in place, in general, sufficient to satisfy us that the deal is appropriate from a national security standpoint,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff recently reassured the public on ABC’s “This Week.”

But isn’t he the guy who was in over his head with a hurricane?

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