Washington was wracked last week by a spasm of Know-Nothingism, starring Democratic and Republican members of Congress whose hysterics confirmed the Founders' view that the president, and not the legislature, ought to handle matters of national security.
At issue was a takeover of the British shipping firm P&O by a United Arab Emirates holding company, Dubai Ports World. The transaction, first reported in the British press last Oct. 30, should have been routine. P&O leases cargo terminals at a half-dozen U.S. ports, and pays the longshoremen who load and unload ships.
The ownership change wouldn't have affected anybody on American soil. DPW had agreed to keep the old British management team (comprised of Americans) in charge and would have retained the all-American force of longshoremen at the terminals.
Nevertheless, politicians acted as if the Bush administration, which gave its blessing to the deal, had just exposed America's tender commercial neck to the glinting scimitars of Araby. Republicans behaved worst.
Rep. Tom DeLay denounced the deal as "outrageous." Sen. Bill Frist vowed to put the decision "on hold." Rep. Peter King warned darkly of "very serious al-Qaida connections." And Rep. Sue Myrick, in the most childish letter ever written a president by someone other than a child, wrote: "In regards to selling American ports to the United Arab Emirates, not just NO — but HELL NO!"
One problem: The United States didn't sell anything. Local port authorities still own the ports, including the cargo terminals rented by firms such as Dubai Ports. The Coast Guard still has exclusive responsibilities for security on the water. The Coast Guard, Customs Service, Border Patrol and local law enforcement still have the duty of maintaining security on the ground. The workforce affected by the change — fewer than 400 laborers — by law must have passed federal background checks.
The fulminating honorables would have known this if even one of them had bothered to contact a single person working at or running a port. When asked whether anybody at any port in the land had contacted him with a single security concern since the P&O/DPW deal was announced four months ago, Rep. King replied, "No."
The ignorance didn't stop there. Many critics of the deal also seemed to know nothing of the security cooperation between the United States and the UAE. To reject the deal would be to slap a government that has provided on-the-ground intelligence from the opening salvo of the war on terror. Gen. Tommy Franks notes that the UAE's much-criticized "recognition" of the Taliban actually enabled the country to do first-rate spying. The UAE provided maps and information for the opening invasion of Afghanistan.
The UAE since has put troops on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq, in active and humanitarian missions. It trains Iraqi forces on its soil. It lets the United States conduct flights through its airspace. It has housed servicemen — and women — from the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force. It maintains the largest U.S. naval facility outside the United States, and Dubai Ports World performs contract service at the port.
It was the first government in the region to comply with the "container security" program launched by the Bush administration, testing every container for nuclear contamination. It now is working to develop technology that would permit the swift and thorough scanning of all containers. Its central bank has become quite active in choking off terror financing. It has rounded up a fair number of al-Qaida operatives and handed them over to the United States, and once — long ago — offered to serve as the agent for delivering Osama bin Laden from the Sudan to the Clinton administration.
If the United States were to kill the deal merely because Dubai Ports World was from Dubai, it would send a devastating message to allies in the war on terror: We don't want you, even if you have placed your citizens in harm's way, actively fought the terror cells, and committed blood and treasure to the war itself. This is nothing short of suicidal at a time when the Muslim world is a tinderbox and the United States has been tarred as Public Enemy No. 1.
The good news is that politicians appreciate the absurdity of the position. On Thursday, Karl Rove extended an olive branch, noting that the administration is willing to let Congress study the matter for 45 days, if necessary.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, who got this riot started, quickly declared that he would like that. The White House knows that, in time, facts will annihilate the Know-Nothings, who have swilled a cocktail of ignorance and knee-knocking fear of Muslim Arabs.
The Rove proffer gives both parties a chance to crawl off the shaky limb before they make a tough situation infinitely worse.