The Last Days of Disco and Dubai

     Its turn-back-the-clock day in the mainstream media and on Capitol Hill. While polyester and Depeche Mode are far from the rage in Congressional chambers and newsrooms, an overzealous fear of foreign investment has been taken out of mothballs to cast a wide shadow over the national security debate. Wistful of that heady decade of relentless crusades against Japanese investment in United States assets, a coalition of isolationists and the eternally grouchy has found a new target: Dubai Ports World. And, oddly enough, a new marksman has joined the firing squad: mainstream conservatives.

     The economic and financial benefits of the transaction are considerable. Dubai Ports World, a United Arab Emirates-based company, is renowned as one of the most efficient managers of seaports in the world. The importation of cost efficiency and competent management into U.S. ports at Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Baltimore is a welcome derivative of free trade. What does the UAE get out of the deal? A stronger trade relationship with a powerful and lucrative economy is but one of the benefits. The most important advantage, arguably, is the political goodwill engendered between trading partners and allies in a complex and far reaching war on terror. But, regardless of those benefits, conservatives want to ax the deal.

     Never mind the usual suspects who loathe the very concept of free trade: their motives are just as diverse as they are ill-informed. The surprise is that conservatives are so riled up over a relatively benign transaction. Benign, when compared to the woeful level of vulnerability of this nations economic infrastructure on other fronts: border security, airline screening, to say nothing of whats being loaded into shipping containers at the overseas departure point. The criticism of this deal is tantamount to haranguing the Atlanta Airport for allowing Egypt Air to service and manage airport gates. As the New York Times David Sanger expressed in a Feb. 23 article: most experts seem to agree on only one major point: The gaping holes in security at American ports have little to do with the nationality of who is running them.

     While the notion of an Arab company managing our ports is certainly likely to strike conservatives as disquieting, normally rational-thinking people have been distracted by a cynical manipulation of the debate.

     Upon news of the approval of the Dubai Ports World transaction, vague reporting and sloppy syllogisms pushed notions of Al Qaeda operatives piloting fork lifts of radioactive cargo at the port of Newark. In his Feb. 17 broadcast, CNNs Lou Dobbs asked if the transfer met any reasonable test of a responsibility to secure the national interest. Even conservative weblogs set torches and wielded pitchforks, demanding the deal be stopped. However, Dobbss motivation was more likely an allergy to free trade and foreign investment: a contempt bred not by familiarity, but economic blindness. By releasing a cathartic demand for more investigation into the security ramifications of the sale, conservatives unwittingly gave cover and credibility to isolationists like Dobbs. Bedfellows have rarely been stranger.

     However, as information began to fill the void, some critics took a deep breath. As Jim Geraghty tersely wrote in his blog at National Review Online, Weve been snookered. The controversy over this port sale has been driven by a great deal of vague, ominous and sloppy language thrown around by lawmakers, the media and bloggers.

     Thankfully, as fact reins in rumor, the debate has become more measured. This development is good news for the abject search for the truth (not to mention the Bush Administration) and bad news for the 20-year class reunion of anti-free traders and isolationist zealots. As Lou Dobbs profiled what appears to be the Bush administration's special relationship with Dubai, Dubai's friends in high places on K Street, and those serious questions about national security, many have already addressed those concerns.

     In a February 23 article, the Washington Posts Paul Blustein, to his credit, reported that Homeland Security (DHS) sat first chair on the governments investigation into the transaction. In addition, DHS had a favorable view of the Dubai Ports World because the company participates in a U.S. program to screen containers before they are put on U.S.-bound ships. Those responsible for performing vital security functions, like the Coast Guard, will retain that responsibility. These facts are a far-flung reality from the notion that the Bush Administration considers our nations port security a fungible good.

     Amidst such a contentious, but erratic, debate, one thing is manifestly obvious: the White House is ill-prepared for the fluidity of the blogosphere. By hewing to a press room philosophy that is structured around a reliably paced 24-hour news cycle, the Bush Administration is highly vulnerable to quick flashes of information and the concomitant change in the debate. By simply crossing their fingers for luck while observing the metamorphosis of rumor into conventional wisdom, the White House has lost the ability to drive the debate and assumed a passive role of response and panic, instead of exercising the active, confident determination that wartime leadership demands.

Charles Simpson is a research analyst for the Media Research Centers Business & Media Institute.