That distant thunder you hear is the sound of thousands of harrumphing
pundits and politicians clearing their throats.
"Ah, what we really meant to say was that we love all G-d's people,
but we'd really rather not have Middle Easterners managing our ports. If
it's not too much trouble."
But trouble it is to admit what's really got Americans in high dudgeon over
the pending sale of shipping operations at six major U.S. ports to the
United Arab Emirates (UAE). It's not just the sale itself, but the Bush
administration's apparent lack of respect toward American citizens
concerning a business deal that at least seems
untimely and counterintuitive.
As I inadvertently failed to mention in an earlier column on the subject,
the ports in question already were managed by a British company, which is
selling the operational rights to Dubai Ports World with American approval.
As I've now written in countless e-mails, "Some foreign companies are more
foreign than others."
Great Britain, though home to the infamous shoe bomber, is nonetheless a
blood brother in the war against terror. The UAE is now being lauded as
helpful in that global fight, but its history relative to terrorism is
problematic. The emirates joined Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in recognizing
the Taliban as the official government of Afghanistan. The UAE also was a
transfer point for shipments of nuclear components to Iran, North Korea and
Given that history, it's hard to pretend that there's no reason whatsoever
for concerns about Dubai Ports, a government-owned company, managing U.S.
In the several days since the pending sale was announced amid much Sturm und
Drang, new facts have surfaced that ultimately may convince Americans that
the sale won't threaten national security. The ports will continue to be
protected as they have been by the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Customs
Service, for instance. And American workers will continue to comprise the
bulk of the ports' workforce.
Other justifications for the sale appear to be reasonable — not least that
Dubai Ports World is reputedly competent at managing ports — and might be
convincing if only someone bearing the title President of the United States
would articulate those reasons in a spirit of respect rather than as a
dismissive parent managing an impudent child.
We're at war, remember? We're fighting terror. We're staying the course and
holding fast. You're either with us or against us. Americans got all that
and the part about taking down Saddam Hussein in case he had weapons of mass
destruction. They also got the part about planting seeds of democracy in
hopes of changing hearts and minds that are stalled in the 12th century.
At the same time, Americans have gamely tolerated interminable airport lines
as old ladies got frisked and terrorist look-alikes strolled through
magnetometers. They're mostly cool, in other words. But they're also
watching the news and seeing a world gone mad over a few political cartoons
and wondering whether it's such a good idea to increase even administrative
traffic between "over there" and here.
These are not the xenophobic ravings of a fevered populace. Rather, they are
a few reasonable questions, to which President George W. Bush replied: "I
want those who are questioning it to step up and explain why all of a sudden
a Middle Eastern company is held to a different standard than a Great
British (sic) company."
Not to be a smart aleck or anything, but does "Duh" work for anyone?
The implication that Americans, including a fair number of Republican
leaders, are reacting negatively to the sale out of racist attitudes or
Islamophobia is, well, probably true, which is not the same as insane. No
nation on Earth is more welcoming or inclusive of others than the United
States, which presumably is why people keep mobbing our borders. But
Americans are also not simpletons.
When 19 men of Middle Eastern descent hijack airplanes and murder thousands
on U.S. soil, reasonable, fair-minded people are not going to pretend not to
notice that the perpetrators are all Middle Eastern men of a certain
complexion. That's not racist, though it may be racially aware. It's not
Islamophobic, though a little phobia isn't always inappropriate. I'm
cautious around snakes even though many are non-poisonous.
The Bush administration could have defused much of the controversy now
swirling had officials clearly explained the practical (business) value of
allowing the sale to go through, as well as the larger purpose of
demonstrating open-minded goodwill toward allies. Instead, as is too often
the case, Bush effectively said, "Trust us. We're in charge; we're on top of
this; we'll take care of it."
In these dangerous times, Americans deserve more than a pat on the head. So
do Republican incumbents whose midterm elections may be at greater risk than