Wednesday, March 01, 2006

WED 3-1-6 EDITORIAL >> Would UAE let us run their ports?

President Bush picked a fine time to worry about ethnic profiling: when the safety of the nation’s ports is in peril. The man who has inflamed Arab passions against the West more than anyone since Pope Urban II and Peter the Hermit organized the First Crusade is terribly afraid that not allowing the sheik of Dubai to run major U.S. ports will cause Muslims to distrust us and not want to do business with American corporations. Bush’s trade representative is trying to negotiate a trade agreement with the United Arab Emirates, which is keenly wanted by major businesses.

We have no idea the degree of risk that the government is taking when it rents the operation of the ports to Dubai Ports World, a company owned by the Dubai government. No matter how many assurances of future security cooperation that the sheik’s men give to the Bush administration, it really can have little confidence either.

Perhaps, as the president says, it really makes no difference since the U.S. Coast Guard and other U.S. agencies will be in charge of security, not the Arab dictator’s agents, and our men are on the scene and fully up to the job. But do you trust those assurances?

What has the Bush administration done to shore up port security, identified three years ago as a matter of grave danger? Nothing. The Coast Guard estimated after 9/11 that it would take $5.4 billion to raise security to the level required by the Maritime Transportation Security Act. The administration requested only $46 million last year, less than before 9/11. Congress raised it to $175 million. Even now, less than 5 percent of cargo unloaded in U.S. ports is carefully inspected. But even that does not reach the real worry. Unloaded cargo is not the issue. A nuclear explosion aboard a ship in the harbor would cripple a city and the nation for years.

The president is right to worry about Arab feelings of slight and discrimination, but we have been told that the threat of terrorism overrides everything, even the Constitution. Last week, the government agreed to pay $300,000 to settle claims by an Egyptian restaurant owner in New York City who was swept up along with many other people of Arab descent by federal agents after 9/11, beaten, jailed incommunicado for many months before officials acknowledged his complete innocence and deported him. The suits of hundreds of others are pending. Bush said the government could take no chances that one might have designs against the country.

The Dubai government, as the president says, has been helpful to the United States in the war against Iraq and terrorists from time to time, letting us base planes and warships there. But is Dubai a lesser risk than, say, Ehab Elmaghraby, that New York restaurateur who ladled splendid moussaka at his Times Square cafe before the government jailed and deported him?
Remember, Dubai was the transfer port for the spread of nuclear technology to tyrant regimes by the Pakistani Abdul Qadeer Khan’s network. Remember also that, according to the 9/11 Commission, at least two 9/11 hijackers were from the Emirates and operated from safe houses and bank accounts in Dubai, and that when President Clinton ordered an air strike on Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan’s hills in 1999, the CIA unilaterally called it off upon learning that some Dubai royals were in bin Laden’s hunting camp.

It is not as if the sheiks would return the favor. An American company would not be allowed to operate the Dubai port. No business can operate there without majority U.A.E. ownership. Free speech and commerce are not allowed there. Americans cannot own land.

Approval of the port sale to the Dubai company deserves special attention for another reason: the peculiar associations within the administration. We don’t mean the president’s claimed personal friendship with the Emirates’ dictators.

Treasury Secretary John Snow, whose department chaired the federal panel that signed off on the port sale to Dubai, was chairman of a rail firm that sold its own operations to Dubai in 2004 for $1.15 billion. Last month, President Bush appointed David Sanborn, who runs Dubai Port’s American and European operations, to run the U.S. Maritime Administration.
This deal may be as safe as the country can arrange, but it deserves to be scrutinized by skeptics, not cheerleaders.