Port control: It's a no-brainer

Posted: Feb 27, 2006 12:05 AM

President Bush has asked anyone opposed to the operational sale of a half dozen American ports to a United Arab Emirates company "to step up and explain why all of a sudden a Middle Eastern company is held to a different standard than a Great British company."

Well, one overwhelming reason is that it was spawn of the Middle East, not Great Britain, that hijacked four American passenger planes on Sept. 11, 2001. And it was United Arab Emirates, not Great Britain, that served as a financial and operational base for the Sept. 11 hijackers (two of whom came from UAE), and a hub for Pakistan's rogue nuclear export business. As Great Britain is Islamized, the distinction narrows; for now, it's reason enough to hold a UAE company to that "different standard." But such evidence -- and there's more -- is obvious; hardly the stuff of great debates. The fact that the president even begs the question is what requires deeper consideration.

Bush threatens to veto any legislation drafted against the port sale. Why? The only explanation I can think of -- and it spells disaster -- is that George W. Bush has decided that international feelings trump national concerns; that upsetting the UAE is worse than upsetting Americans: "I am trying to conduct a foreign policy now by saying to the people of the world, `We'll treat you fairly,'" he said. Fairly? That's how you treat people after the war, not while the outcome remains undecided.

I didn't set out to write about the port story. Today's subject was meant to be Karen Hughes, Bush's diplomatic envoy extraordinary: the lady charged with making Them love Us; the lady who is supposed to make the world -- namely, the Muslim world -- see that "we'll treat you fairly."

In international circles, this requires leveling the existential playing field. Where Bush labors to knock down our historic affinity with Great Britain to a par with UAE, Hughes, in her address to the U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Qatar, tries to belittle America's history of ever-expanding freedom into a We Are All Flawed narrative. As in: Once upon a time (that takes care of the first 300 years), there was a lady named Rosa Parks, who, as Hughes put it, "was tired of a life of indignity and injustice in a country that was failing to live up to its founding conviction that all of us are created equal." We Are All Flawed.

Here Hughes was, addressing some of the world's leading repressors -- representatives of countries where there is little to no freedom of conscience, little to no religious freedom, and little to no sexual equality -- running down the United States for "failing to live up to our founding convictions." Aiming low, she achieved a kind of immoral equivalence with the unfree.

What's notable about Hughes' talk, which included vignettes about individuals who have tried to advance freedom in the Muslim world, is that she used their example to prove, as with Rosa Parks, that "one person of courage and conscience can make (a difference)." But they haven't. Where Rosa Parks succeeded symbolically because the nation institutionally was changing, these individuals spark and fail to ignite -- as Rosa Parks would have surely failed in, say, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Tiananmen Square, downtown Tehran or Riyadh.

Hughes' exemplars of courage -- from Mukhtar Mai, an outspoken gang-rape ("honor crime") victim recently barred from appearing at the United Nations due to Pakistani government pressure; to Akbar Ganji, a dissident journalist who, after five years, still languishes near death in an Iranian jail -- haven't changed nations or started mass movements. This is largely because of a doctrinal predisposition against freedom and equality that exists in Islamic societies, "democratic" or not. Even Roula al-Dashti, whom Hughes applauds for shepherding women's suffrage through the Kuwaiti legislature, has seen her victory narrowed by legislation requiring women in politics to abide by Islamic law (sharia).

Such systemic obstacles highlight differences between the West and Islam -- differences Hughes seems unable to appreciate. It's really not enough to imagine a Rosa Parks boarding a bus for freedom in downtown Lahore or Cairo and getting anywhere but jail. There are important reasons the Magna Carta and individual rights developed in the West -- Great Britain, actually -- and not the Islamic East. Which goes back to why Bush's original question is so disturbing: Doesn't he know the difference?