WASHINGTON -- If only Churchill were alive today, none of this would be happening. The proud imperialist would have taken care that the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., chartered in 1840 by Victoria ("by the grace of God ... Queen defender of the faith'' on "this thirty first day of December in the fourth year of our reign''), would still be serving afternoon tea and crumpets on some immaculate Jewel-in-the-Crown cricket pitch in Ceylon.
The United Arab Emirates would still be a disunited bunch of subsistence Arab tribes grateful for the protection of the British Navy in the Persian Gulf.
And we hapless Americans -- already desperately trying to mediate, pacify and baby-sit the ruins of Churchill's Empire: Iraq, Palestine, India/Pakistan, Yemen, even (Anglo-Egyptian) Sudan -- would not be in the midst of a mini-firestorm over the sale of the venerable P&O, which manages six American ports, to the UAE.
This has raised the obvious question of whether we want our ports, through which a nuclear bomb could come, handled by a country two of whose nationals flew into the South Tower on 9/11 and which has a history of laundering money and nuclear secrets from bad guys to worse guys.
Congress is up in arms. The Democrats, in particular, are in full cry, gleeful to at last get to the right of George Bush on an issue of national security.
Gleeful, and shamelessly hypocritical. If a citizen of the UAE walked into an airport in full burnoose and flowing robes, speaking only Arabic, Democrats would be deeply offended, and might even sue, if the security people were to give him any more scrutiny than they would to my sweet 84-year-old mother.
Democrats loudly denounce any thought of racial profiling. But when that same Arab, attired in business suit and MBA, and with a good record running ports in 15 countries, buys P&O, Democrats howl at the very idea of allowing Arabs to run our ports. (Republicans are howling too, but they don't grandstand on the issue of racial profiling.)
On this, the Democrats are rank hypocrites. But even hypocrites can be right. There is a problem. And the problem is not just the obvious one that an Arab-run company, heavily staffed with Arab employees, is more likely to be infiltrated by terrorists who might want to smuggle an awful weapon into our ports. But that would probably require some cooperation from the operating company. And neither the company nor the government of the UAE, which has been pro-American and a reasonably good ally in the war on terror, has any such record.
The greater and more immediate danger is that as soon as the Dubai company takes over operations, it will necessarily become privy to information about security provisions at crucial U.S. ports. That would mean a transfer of information about our security operations -- and perhaps even worse, about the holes in our security operations -- to a company in an Arab state in which there might be employees who, for reasons of corruption or ideology, would pass this invaluable knowledge on to al Qaeda-types.
That is the danger and it is a risk, probably an unnecessary one. It's not quite the end of the world that Democratic and Republican critics have portrayed it to be. After all, the UAE, which is run by a friendly regime, manages ports in other countries without any such incidents. Employees in other countries could leak or betray us just as easily. The issue, however, is that they are statistically more likely to be found in the UAE than, for example, in Britain.
It's a fairly close call. I can sympathize with the president's stubbornness in sticking to the deal. He is responsible for our foreign relations, and believes, not unreasonably, that it would harm our broader national interest to reject and humiliate a moderate Middle Eastern ally by pulling the contract just because a company is run by Arabs.
This contract should have been stopped at an earlier stage, but at this point doing so would cause too much damage to our relations with moderate Arab states. There are no very good options. The best exit strategy is this: (1) Allow the contract to go through; (2) give it heightened scrutiny by assigning a team of U.S. government agents to work inside the company at least for the first few years to make sure security is tight and information closely held; (3) have the team report every six months to both the executive and a select congressional committee.
Not nearly as clean as the Harriet Miers exit. But as I said, there are no very good options. There have not been very many since Britannia stopped ruling the waves, and it all fell to us.