Up until a few weeks ago, it's doubtful that one American out of 100,000 — if that many — could have told you who owned the rights to manage several American port facilities.
But today — outside of the illiterate or the tiny minority of Americans who don't own television sets — it's doubtful any of us are unaware that a firm now owned in part by the United Arab Emirates may soon be the proud owner of such rights.
That is, they were — until the news of this deal got on the radar of a few members of Congress, who then set off one of the greatest bipartisan feeding frenzies in our history.
Even in a political era in which hyperventilation has become the normal mode of discourse in Washington, there has probably never been an issue that inspired quite as much hypocritical speechifying as the storm over Dubai Ports World, a management company owned by Dubai's government.
How in heaven's name, Democrats and Republicans, asked us, could we allow an Arab country to have anything to do with something as potentially crucial to security as our ports?
The issue united both hawks and doves, and virtually every other politician with a pulse. Except, that is, the politically tone-deaf crew in the White House, who took longer to figure out that the deal was a loser than it did to understand the negative fallout from Hurricane Katrina.
In the immediate aftermath of the hullabaloo, some pro-Bush pundits poked fun at the port hysteria. They pointed out that the shipping industry had long ago gone global, and reminded everyone that control of the ports by a foreign company wasn't new. The only difference was that they were now passing into the hands of an Arab firm from a British company.
They also soberly asked whether we really wanted to set a precedent that might scare off foreign investment from American shores.
After all, we were told, wouldn't all the security functions of these ports still be in the hands of the Coast Guard and Homeland Security Department, although admittedly the thought of the latter having this responsibility is hardly comforting.
It was assumed by many that since most Senate and House members, including those who had rarely before cared a fig for defense issues, had already milked all the TV time they could out of it, that the deal would be quietly processed after a suitable delay.
BREAKING THE LAW
But after the most recent twist in the debate, that might not be true. And though I bow to no one in my contempt for most of the congressional hysteria on the issue, it may well be that this is one case where the hotheads were right, and the "wiser" heads were dead wrong.
That was made abundantly clear when opponents of the sale began trumpeting the fact that Dubai is a country that still honors the Arab boycott of Israel. That's a policy which is not only immoral, it's also illegal under U.S. law, and is something for which DP World ought to be held accountable.
Indeed, the Anti-Defamation League's Abe Foxman has pointed out that the United Arab Emirates violated the anti-boycott law as recently as last year by demanding that American companies prove that goods entering their territory were not of Israeli origin.
Foxman rightly noted that the Emirates participation in the boycott ought to "torpedo any deal with the United States on port operations."
It's true that Dubai appears to be one of those Arab emirates that are trying to have it both ways on Israel. On the one hand, they support the boycott and its banks have served to shelter terrorist money. But when no one in the Arab world is looking, they also have low-level diplomatic and business contacts with Israel. Israel's leading shipping firm, Zim, sends ships to ports run by DP World, though it does so by operating ships that sail under the flags of other countries.
It has been suggested that the scrutiny now afforded Dubai will force it to renounce the boycott of Israel once and for all, and that the port deal will slip through as part of a bigger arrangement that will grant the Emirates a free-trade agreement with the United States.
Getting Dubai to bend on the boycott would be a good thing. It would probably also be applauded by Israel, whose silence on the subject shows that they think their current relationship with the Emirates is about as good as it can get.
But it would be even better if the focus on port security didn't end the moment the Sunday talk shows change the topic.
That's because it's way past time that people in charge of our security stopped worrying about being politically correct when it comes to the Arab world.
In the first week of the controversy, The New York Times' David Brooks accused liberal critics of the port deal of indulging in a form of racial profiling by claiming that a Gulf state ought, as a matter of policy, to be excluded from any role in that sector.
The moderate Brooks was right about liberal hypocrisy but wrong on the issue because more profiling in security matters is exactly what this country needs. The pretense that the war against the West being waged by Islamists can be fought by ignoring the fact that our enemies come from that region and are deeply entrenched in Arab society is not one that can be sustained.
It's all well and good for Bush to speak of Islam as a "religion of peace" and to promote Dubai as a good friend of America. But how can the administration tell us with a straight face that the "moderate" Arab regimes it likes are really our allies?
As Frank Gaffney, who heads the Center for Security Policy think tank and served in Ronald Reagan's Department of Defense recently wrote on www.military. com, "How could even a stacked deck like the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States find it possible to approve the Dubai Ports World's transaction?"
THE SAUDI ARABIA TREATMENT
Gaffney points out that the government's determination to portray "the United Arab Emirates as a vital ally in this war for the free world" bears a striking resemblance to the blind eye America turns toward Saudi Arabia.
"The Saudis continue playing a double game whereby they work simultaneously to repress terrorism at home and abet it abroad," Gaffney asserts.
The point is that as important as international financial stability and the need to attract foreign investment may be, we can't afford to treat homeland-security issues in the sort of business-as-usual backscratching bureaucratic manner that allowed the ports deal to be pushed through.
It's way past time for the government to start profiling those governments and companies that are linked — one way or the other — with Islamists or the boycott of Israel.
And if it takes some congressional hyperbole to make that happen, then, at least in this instance, that's a price well worth paying.