ARC's 1st Law: As a "progressive" online discussion grows longer, the probability of a nefarious reference to Karl Rove approaches one

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Lileks on the Politics of Ports

James Lileks has this screedblog which certainly fits my thoughts on the matter.

Do I expect the managers of the ports to start installing Al Qaeda operatives in key positions, so they can wave through all the containers with small nukes for national distribution? No. But such a scenario does not exact tax the imagination, which is why it’s such a stupendously bad idea.

It’s remarkably tone deaf. It’s possible that the Administration did some quiet polling, and asked the question “How much Arab control over American ports are you comfortable with,” and misinterpreted stunned silence as assent. It’s possible the Administration believed that this would be seen as outreach, an act of faith to solidify a Key Ally, and didn’t think there’d be much hubbub – but if that’s the case, it’s the best example of the Bubble Theory I’ve heard, and I’ve not heard much convincing evidence. Until now. The average American’s reaction to handing port control over to the UAE is instinctively negative, and for good reason. There are two basic reactions: We can’t do this ourselves? and We should trust them, why?


As for the first, the assertion that American firms were the lower bidder is unpersuasive, rather like saying that we should have outsourced the flight crew for the Enola Gay to Japanese nationals because they knew the terrain better. As for the trust issue, well, wanting port control to remain in American hands is not a matter of Arabiaphobia, any more than selling Boeing to China means you harbor deep hatred of Asians. Some things ought to be left in local hands. It seems absurd to have to make that argument in the first place. The UAE is not exactly stuffed stem to stern with pro-American individuals; the idea that the emirs will stand foursquare against infiltration by those who have ulterior motives is the sort of wishful thinking that makes buildings fall and cities empty. I’m not worried that some evil emir is putting a pinky to his monocled eye, and saying Mwah! at last I have them where I want them! I’m worried about the guy who’s three steps down the management branch handing off a job to a brother who trusts some guys who have some sympathies with some guys who hang around some rather energetic fellows who attend that one mosque where the guy talks about jihad 24/7, and somehow someone gets a job somewhere that makes it easier for something to happen.

That’s a lot of ifs and maybes. But I don’t want any ifs and maybes. You can't eliminate them all, of course, but I would rather we had a system devoted to worrying about ifs and maybes instead of adopting an official policy of Whatever.

We’re told we’re at war, and we reach back for the wartime memories we all saw in the movies and read in the novels: Yanks walking along fences with a dog, rifle on the shoulder, searchlight playing on the ground, stealthy foes ever at the perimeter. It was never that tight, of course; it was never that dramatic. But there were the constant imprecations to be vigilant, because peril lurked. That would have been undercut, perhaps, if the Roosevelt Administration had given port control to Franco.

Well, not the best analogy, perhaps. But the specifics don’t matter; arguments about the specific nature of the Dubai Ports World organization’s global reach and responsible track records don’t matter. Because it feels immediately, instinctively wrong to nearly every American, and that isn’t something that can be argued away with charts or glossy brochures. It just doesn’t sit well. Period. It’s one thing for an Administration to misjudge how a particular decision will be received; it’s another entirely to misjudge an issue that cuts to the core of the Administration’s core strength. That’s where you slap yourself on the forehead in the style of those lamenting the failure to request a V-8 in a timely fashion. Doesn’t matter whether it was a deal struck between the previous administrators and the UAE; that’s not how the issue will be seen. And it certainly doesn’t matter once the President gets all stern on the topic and insists he’ll veto any attempt to keep the deal from going through. At that point, millions of previously resolute supporters stand there with their mouths open, uttering a soft confused moan of disbelief.

On the good side: we’re probably done with Shotgungate, and the DailyKos people will start getting worried about dirty nukes smuggled in through the ports. On the dark side, for conservatives: woot, there it is – the politically inept, base-confounding, intuitively indefensible decision. Oh, it may be the right thing to do, in the end. Maybe you’re overreacting. Wait, study, read, reflect. But hope you don’t have to go on a cable show and defend it, because you’d feel greasy.

Advice to the administration: If you’re going to shoot yourself in the foot, don’t use a bazooka. You may aim for the pinky toe but there’s nothing left below the hip. The recoil should not be your first clue you grabbed the wrong gun.

My point was that while this makes economic sense and is (in the final analysis) not going to impact port security, the politics of it is remarkably idiotic.

Your Co-Conspirator,
ARC: St Wendeler

Comments (2)
Vox Poplar said...

Maybe the whole port deal is designed to attract Al Qaida terrorists and sympathizers to trap them. Like the old Inuit trick to get rid of wolves, smear a knife blade with honey and stick where the wolves go. Wolves then lick the honey, get all cut up and bleed to death.

It is a little too tempting a target for them isn't it?

But that's just my little mind a wandering.

St Wendeler said...

I actually think that the concerns about security are overblown, although Lileks' "friend of a friend of a friend who's a bit radical" scenario is my primary concern.

But the politics of the move is just jaw-droppingly dreadful.

I get that UAE isn't Saudi Arabia and that they're more Westernized than almost the entire rest of the Middle East. And we need to help our allies in the region...

but I'm not sure that this is the best move, in terms of domestic politics. It has a dual impact:
1 - weakening W's position on national security in the eyes of Joe Six Pack
2 - improving the national security bona fides of Shumer & Clinton, who've been harping on port security for years with zero traction.

Unfortunately, we're in a terrible mess right now... rescinding the contract will have dreadful consequences in the WOT and in the Middle East. Algore could point to that action as proof of his position that the US is racist against Arabs. Keeping the contract only strengthens the Dems positions in the fall and snowballs to '08.

And if you think the Dems are screeching now when they have zero power, imagine what they'll be like when they get the house and can bring up articles of impeachment!