WASHINGTON, D.C. -- "Forget the facts. The Bush administration is so bad at 'spin control,' the White House has banned Frisbees." That's the assessment of a seasoned Washington reporter earlier this week when "Port-Gate" blew up in the President's face. According to this sage, the "bi-partisan explosion" over the sale of operations at six U.S. ports to a company owned by the United Arab Emirates has left "George Bush more badly wounded than Dick Cheney's hunting partner." Great laugh lines. Everyone in the elevator got a big chuckle.
Unfortunately, it's all true -- it just isn't funny. In Washington today, the facts really don't matter. And no one -- friend or foe -- has any doubt that the Bush administration has an appalling record when it comes to getting its message out and keeping Congress "in the loop." When political and press opponents of the president are allowed to frame the issue -- whether it's the war in Iraq, the response to a hurricane, NSA "wiretaps" or foreign firms operating U.S. port facilities -- the results are foreordained. We have now seen a series of Congressional uproars, threats of bi-partisan legislation to alter the administration's course -- and a host of public-relations nightmares for Republicans running for reelection. And it's all preventable.
The current flap -- over whether Dubai Ports World should be allowed to run commercial container facilities at the ports of Baltimore, Miami, New Jersey, New Orleans, New York and Philadelphia -- is a case study in how to botch what might otherwise have been a "sure thing." Despite the political bluster, most Americans -- and apparently many in Congress -- seem unaware of what's really at stake or how the issue even arose.
The six ports in question aren't being "sold to a foreign power" as alleged by some on both the right and the left. Nor is the sale a "hostile takeover," as one ill-informed TV anchor described it. Rather, DP World, a UAE-owned commercial entity, bought out -- for $6.8 billion -- Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., the British firm that has operated facilities at these ports for years. P&O also runs material handling operations in Australia, South Korea, India, Germany and China. These, too, will be operated by DP World once the P&O buyout is consummated next month.
Contrary to the canard that "an Arab government will be in charge of security at six of America's biggest ports," all security operations will continue to be handled by Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Coast Guard. DP World, like the British firm before it, will have nothing to do with security operations at the ports in question. But, it's understandable that casual observers believe there is a security element involved when high-ranking administration officials like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice say that the port deal "serves our security interests and serves the commercial interest [of the United States] as well.''
Perhaps most importantly, the UAE is much more than just "an Arab country that has supported terrorism in the past," as some of the more racially-tinged rhetoric has it. Unfortunately, the accusation -- repeated almost hourly now on talk-radio call-in shows -- has a grain of truth to it. Two of the Sept. 11 hijackers were from the UAE. And al Qaeda money was laundered through Dubai banks. But since then, the UAE has become one of America's closest allies in the Global War on Terror, apprehending terrorists, shutting down their financial networks and providing tangible support for U.S. military operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq. It was this close cooperation that led the multi-agency Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) -- to green-light the transaction.
Like international commercial air travel, port operations do not start at home -- they begin abroad, and strong, trusted allies are essential to ensure the safety of cargo being loaded onto U.S.-bound ships in port terminals all over the world before it heads for an American port. Lost in all the noise is the fact that Dubai was the first Middle-Eastern entity to sign-up for the Container Security Initiative to pre-screen cargo destined for the United States.
Bush administration officials, stunned by the press and political firestorm, are now belatedly trying to make these points with their "friends" in Congress -- but it is truly a case of too little water, too late on the flames. During hastily called Senate Armed Services Committee hearings, members were too busy tallying up the flood of constituent calls and e-mails to even acknowledge that funding for port security has increased dramatically since the attacks of Sept. 11 -- from $259 million in 2001 to $1.6 billion in 2005.
The administration's message was further diluted late in the week by two painful admissions: First, that both the president and Treasury Secretary John Snow -- who chairs CFIUS -- had learned about the controversial transaction from the press; and second, that as the controversy unfolded in the midst of guilty pleas and indictments in "Lobby-gate" -- paid lobbyists were dispatched to Capitol Hill to defend the DP World-port decision.
The Bush White House may yet salvage the DP-World-U.S. Port operating deal. With a sufficient investment of the president's "political capital," a company owned by a valued ally in the war on terror might yet be able to conduct limited and regulated business operations at a few U.S. ports.
Of equal importance is the hope that this most recent drama is a wake-up call to the Bush administration that they simply must do a better job of communicating clearly with the public and the Congress. If they fail to do so, they will feed a growing perception that this is a White House adrift at sea.