(Much) More on the Dubai Port Deal

(MUCH) MORE ON THE DUBAI PORT DEAL….I’m still open to argument on the Dubai port deal, but this is looking more and more like a mindless feeding frenzy to me. So far, I’ve only heard a couple of arguments against the deal that are even colorable.

First, Atrios points out that Dubai Ports World (DPW) isn’t a private company, it’s a state-owned company. It’s one thing to have a foreign company operating some of our shipping terminals, but a foreign state?

The problem is that this is just the nature of the shipping business. As the Financial Times reports, state-owned companies already operate terminals in the U.S., including China Shipping at the Port of Los Angeles and APL (owned by Singapore’s state-owned NOL) in Oakland. “The US container port industry would be unworkable without companies controlled by foreign governments,” says a British analyst. Furthermore, DPW and Singapore’s state-owned PSA are the third and fourth largest port operators in the world, and China’s Hutchison Ports already refuses to invest in the U.S. If all of these firms are shut out of the country, we lose access to some of the best and most efficient port operators in the world.

Second, Matt Yglesias notes that “Giving Bush the benefit of the doubt is not a sound policy as a general matter.” That’s an excellent point. And causing Bush some political pain is a worthy goal.

But there are limits, and encouraging the xenophobic jingoism that’s driving this controversy is a little too much for me. Unless there are serious substantive reasons to oppose this deal, I’m not willing to jump on the bandwagon solely because it’s an opportunity for some righteous Bush bashing.

I also did a bit of Googling to find out what a few actual port operators thought of this deal last week before it turned into quite such a media circus. They seemed pretty sangune about the whole thing:

New Orleans: Gary LaGrange, president and chief executive of the New Orleans port, said he was surprised by the sale but not overly concerned.

Baltimore: F. Brooks Royster III, director of the Maryland Port Administration, which oversees the public marine terminals, said an infusion of money from Dubai Ports World might help the port expand. Two days later: “They?re not here to insert terrorists into the country….I don?t have a concern in that regard.”

Philadelphia: William P. McLaughlin, public affairs director for the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority, which owns major general-cargo terminals on the Pennsylvania side of the river, said security and other port operations issues are spelled out in the lease and should not be affected by the change.

Miami: Port of Miami-Dade executives aren’t concerned. “They are not buying the Port of Miami,” said Deputy Port Director Khalid Salahuddin. “They are buying part of one of the operators at the port.”

Tampa: Amid growing criticism of a deal to give a United Arab Emirates company a major presence in U.S. ports, Tampa Port Authority commissioners….authorized port director Richard Wainio to sign a contract to bring the British company at the center of the controversy to Tampa to run cargo handing at the public agency’s docks…. Wainio called the deal with P&O a critical step for the port and the region.

What’s more, as I noted earlier, dock workers themselves would continue to be American union members, and port security would continue to be provided by the Coast Guard and U.S. customs. It also seems noteworthy that DPW’s acquisition of P&O would give it control of port operations in lots of other countries besides the U.S., including P&O’s home country of Great Britain, and everyone else seems to be OK with that. What do we think we know that Britain and Belgium don’t?

In the end, there’s nothing left to this controversy except the raw question of whether the government of the United Arab Emirates is sympathetic to international terrorism and therefore likely to implement policies that would make it easier for al-Qaeda to infiltrate ports in the U.S. ? something most analysts seem to think is pretty far-fetched. God knows I wouldn’t mind some congressional oversight on this question, especially if it prompted some serious action on actual port security, but if turns out that the UAE is really untrustworthy then I’d like to find someplace else for the Navy to park their ships too. The port of Dubai is the busiest port of call for the United States Navy outside the continental United States.

In the absence of serious evidence of untrustworthiness, though, I’d prefer to walk the liberal internationalism walk instead of jumping ship for short term political gain. I’ve said before that engaging seriously with the Arab world is the best way of fighting terrorism, and I meant it. This is a chance to do exactly that.

UPDATE: The Council on Foreign Relations has a pretty decent Q&A-style rundown of the port deal here.

UPDATE 2: I just want to make something super clear here. If jumping on the Dubai hysteria bandwagon merely hurt George Bush politically and prompted some additional interest in port security, I’d be all for it. What do I care if the DPW/P&O deal goes through? But the whole thing feeds on a mindless anti-Arab jingoism that’s genuinely dangerous, and that’s why I’m not joining the fun unless I hear some really good reasons for doing so. As liberals, we’re either serious about engaging with the Muslim world in a sensible, non-hysterical way or we’re not. Which is it?