That distant thunder you hear is the sound of thousands of harrumphing pundits and politicians clearing their throats.
"Ah, what we really meant to say was that we love all G-d's people, but we'd really rather not have Middle Easterners managing our ports. If it's not too much trouble."
But trouble it is to admit what's really got Americans in high dudgeon over the pending sale of shipping operations at six major U.S. ports to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It's not just the sale itself, but the Bush administration's apparent lack of respect toward American citizens concerning a business deal that at least seems untimely and counterintuitive.
As I inadvertently failed to mention in an earlier column on the subject, the ports in question already were managed by a British company, which is selling the operational rights to Dubai Ports World with American approval. As I've now written in countless e-mails, "Some foreign companies are more foreign than others."
Great Britain, though home to the infamous shoe bomber, is nonetheless a blood brother in the war against terror. The UAE is now being lauded as helpful in that global fight, but its history relative to terrorism is problematic. The emirates joined Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in recognizing the Taliban as the official government of Afghanistan. The UAE also was a transfer point for shipments of nuclear components to Iran, North Korea and Libya.
Given that history, it's hard to pretend that there's no reason whatsoever for concerns about Dubai Ports, a government-owned company, managing U.S. ports.
In the several days since the pending sale was announced amid much Sturm und Drang, new facts have surfaced that ultimately may convince Americans that the sale won't threaten national security. The ports will continue to be protected as they have been by the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Customs Service, for instance. And American workers will continue to comprise the bulk of the ports' workforce.
Other justifications for the sale appear to be reasonable — not least that Dubai Ports World is reputedly competent at managing ports — and might be convincing if only someone bearing the title President of the United States would articulate those reasons in a spirit of respect rather than as a dismissive parent managing an impudent child. We're at war, remember? We're fighting terror. We're staying the course and holding fast. You're either with us or against us. Americans got all that and the part about taking down Saddam Hussein in case he had weapons of mass destruction. They also got the part about planting seeds of democracy in hopes of changing hearts and minds that are stalled in the 12th century. Check.
At the same time, Americans have gamely tolerated interminable airport lines as old ladies got frisked and terrorist look-alikes strolled through magnetometers. They're mostly cool, in other words. But they're also watching the news and seeing a world gone mad over a few political cartoons and wondering whether it's such a good idea to increase even administrative traffic between "over there" and here.
These are not the xenophobic ravings of a fevered populace. Rather, they are a few reasonable questions, to which President George W. Bush replied: "I want those who are questioning it to step up and explain why all of a sudden a Middle Eastern company is held to a different standard than a Great British (sic) company."
Not to be a smart aleck or anything, but does "Duh" work for anyone?
The implication that Americans, including a fair number of Republican leaders, are reacting negatively to the sale out of racist attitudes or Islamophobia is, well, probably true, which is not the same as insane. No nation on Earth is more welcoming or inclusive of others than the United States, which presumably is why people keep mobbing our borders. But Americans are also not simpletons.
When 19 men of Middle Eastern descent hijack airplanes and murder thousands on U.S. soil, reasonable, fair-minded people are not going to pretend not to notice that the perpetrators are all Middle Eastern men of a certain complexion. That's not racist, though it may be racially aware. It's not Islamophobic, though a little phobia isn't always inappropriate. I'm cautious around snakes even though many are non-poisonous.
The Bush administration could have defused much of the controversy now swirling had officials clearly explained the practical (business) value of allowing the sale to go through, as well as the larger purpose of demonstrating open-minded goodwill toward allies. Instead, as is too often the case, Bush effectively said, "Trust us. We're in charge; we're on top of this; we'll take care of it."
In these dangerous times, Americans deserve more than a pat on the head. So do Republican incumbents whose midterm elections may be at greater risk than our ports.