WASHINGTON -- How ironic that President Bush -- who has successfully protected the United States since 9/11 -- is being criticized for endangering national security in the shipping port deal with an Arab-owned company.
It turns out he knew nothing about the deal until he read it in the newspapers. Neither did top administration officials like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Treasury Secretary John W. Snow, who sit on the government body that must examine such deals to see if they could in any way threaten U.S. security.
The firestorm of criticism last week came mostly from Bush's own party, though the Democrats were piling on, too, in an attempt to improve their deeply damaged posture on national-security issues. (More about that in a moment.)
The administration's decision to let a United Arab Emirates-owned global company, Dubai Ports World, take over the management of six major U.S. shipping ports on the East Coast and in the Gulf was approved by the 12-member Committee on Foreign Investment, comprised of top government official from Homeland Security to the intelligence community.
In this case, it appears sub-Cabinet officials presided over the decision, as they examined the pros and cons of a friendly Arab country taking over the management of some of the biggest ports of entry in the United States that could be the target of terrorist penetration. There are many pros and cons.
The United Arab Emirates is one of America's strongest military allies in the Middle East. We have an important intelligence listening-post facility in that country. U.S. Navy warships dock at its ports, which host more U.S. military vessels than anywhere else outside the United States. The U.S. Air Force uses its airbases at Al Dhafra and Abu Dhabi. The UAE has been working with us in the war on terror, including a terrorist cleansing in their country.
The cleansing occurred after 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Before then, UAE emirs were cozy with the Taliban, visited Osama bin Laden's camps and two of the 9/11 terrorists came from the United Arab Emirates.
But Secretary Rumsfeld now says all that has changed. "The United Arab Emirates is a country that's been an ally in the global war on terror. We share intelligence and we have a partnership that has been very, very helpful to the things we do in that part of the world," he said on the Michael Reagan radio show last week.
Foreign companies now run at least 90 terminals at major ports in the United States, including a company in China. They manage these ports, which are manned by U.S. workers, but have nothing to do with security operations. That is handled by federal security agencies, principally by the U.S. Coast Guard, which inspects the ships and cargo, and clears all crew lists.
Still, Republican leaders don't like the smell of this and they vow to introduce legislation that would block the deal. Hearings are likely to be held, and administration officials have been briefing key committee chairmen on the deal. Bush has said he will veto any attempt to stop the Dubai Ports World deal from going through, but, if it came to that, there's clearly enough votes to easily override his veto.
No one could be happier over this development than the Democrats, who'd like nothing better than an intraparty squabble between the White House and Republicans. It is unlikely, though, that they will reap political rewards from any voter doubts about the GOP's record on national security.
A survey by Democratic pollster Mark Penn at the Democratic Leadership Council found that voters -- by a margin of 48 percent to 38 percent -- trusted Republicans more than Democrats to fight terrorism.
The debate over Dubai Ports World, whose management hierarchy includes American executives, will be settled one way or another. But the Democrats' dangerously weak posture on national security seems to have been set in concrete. They opposed the antiterrorist Patriot Act, fought the president's program to listen in on the conversations of foreign terrorists and have called for the unilateral withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
"To listen to the [Democrats'] congressional and party leaders today, it's evident they haven't learned a thing," said DLC founder Al From. "It would be tragic if national security costs Democrats yet another national election. But it could."
Since 9/11, the Bush administration has foiled more than a dozen terrorist plots against the United States, both here and abroad, because of the tools provided by the Patriot Act and the satellite interception of e-mails and phone conversations between some very bad people. Port security, while still a work in progress, is tighter than ever, undiminished by the foreign port managers who run these facilities on our coasts.
We shouldn't let the latest debate over the Dubai Ports World deal get in the way of the larger question before us in this election year: Who can better protect America's national security from the terrorist threat? Bush still wins this one hands down.