Did you hear the one about Dick Cheney, a priest and a rabbi walking into an Arab-run port?
No? Too bad, because the brouhaha that has replaced Cheney-mania is a lot less entertaining. This week brought a strange bipartisan convergence over, of all things, the commercial management of U.S. ports.
Bipartisan consensus is often a troubling sign, particularly when it's on an issue few know much about. It was prompted by the Bush administration's decision to defend the bid by Dubai Ports World, based in the United Arab Emirates, to buy the British-owned Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co., which currently runs six U.S. ports. The deal was unanimously approved by the administration committee charged with reviewing the national security implications of foreign acquisitions.
In response, Republicans and Democrats alike have gone batty.
For five years, Republicans have chanted "trust the president" on national security. They even won elections on the issue. For nearly five years, Democrats have said President Bush should use more carrots and fewer sticks in his diplomacy in the Muslim world. They argued that we need to reward our allies with trade and trust (except when we actually did it in places such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia). Liberals lectured that equating "Muslim" or "Arab" and "terrorist" is not only bigoted but counterproductive, in that it will feed the "root causes" of terrorism.
But suddenly, virtually all leading Republicans and Democrats - with the laudable exception of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. - now argue that Bush can't be trusted on national security, that our Arab ally the UAE should go suck eggs, and that racial profiling of foreign firms is just fine. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., now even thinks Halliburton should run the ports. And Jimmy Carter is backing the White House.
At this rate, Barbra Streisand will soon be holding benefit concerts for Pennsylvania's conservative Sen. Rick Santorum.
The one guy clearly sticking to his principles is CNN's Lou Dobbs. But that's because he went bonkers a long time ago. The perfectly coiffed millionaire anchor has anointed himself the defender of Joe Sixpack, opposing every manifestation of globalization (save for CNN International, of course). He's perfected the art of the highbrow demagogue, maintaining a perpetual state of shock about how those fat cats are giving guys "like us" the shaft.
So it's not surprising that Tailgunner Lou insists that the review process that allowed the port deal to go through didn't take into account national security. Of course, for the author of "Exporting America," it is axiomatic that all outsourcing, downsizing or free-trading is against national security.
In response to the port decision, Dobbs ran one of his typically less-than-scientific online polls: "Do you believe national security should play a role in the national security review process?" He knew this was like asking "Do you think prostate exams should screen for prostate cancer?" He just didn't care.
And that's the point: Few politicians - or commentators - seem to care about the facts.
So here are a few, in no particular order: The Dubai firm wouldn't be handling security - the U.S. Coast Guard would continue to do that; unionized American longshoremen would still to do all of the loading and unloading; the ports in question were already foreign-owned, as are countless other ports in the United States; and if the U.S. had rejected the Dubai bid, a Singapore firm would probably have gotten the contract from the Brits instead.
Democratic and Republican politicians respond by insisting that the UAE is a bad country full of bad Muslims and Arabs, while Britain is a nice country where everyone likes us. I'm as Anglophile as they come, but you might have noticed that Britain has a surfeit of jihadi nut bags, such as the guys who blew up the Underground and want to behead Danish cartoonists.
Besides, the same Dubai company bought CSX's American port business in early 2005, and nobody seemed to care then. So, why now?
Well, Bush is in the second-term doldrums, and presidential wannabes are taking advantage of what was, in retrospect, a political - but not a policy - blunder. The White House's tepid defense of the Danish cartoons sent the message to some that Bush is going a bit wobbly. Democrats have found a populist route to zing Bush from the right for a change. The war in Iraq, the war on terror, the bombings abroad and the increasing arrogance of Europe all produce, if not screaming isolationism, the desire to keep all that junk "over there."
Port security is a serious concern, but scapegoating Dubai is a distraction. And if we're going to argue about distractions, we might stick to the entertaining ones.
So did you hear the one about Dick Cheney doodling a picture of the prophet Muhammad?