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Politicized ports

Politics | DP World's decision to bow out of a ports deal with the U.S. may not end a dispute more about winning political points than securing the nation from terrorists

Democratic opposition to the Bush Administration's plan to allow Dubai's DP World to purchase operational control of a half dozen U.S. ports from a private British firm could have been expected. But President George W. Bush was never able to rally Republican troops to his side. When the President stood up for a deal that would have put a state-owned Arab company in charge of six United States seaports, Capitol Hill Republicans didn't follow. DP World announced yesterday it will sell its U.S. operations to an "unrelated U.S. buyer" in four to six months.

DP World's bow-out may not end a dispute more about winning political points than securing the nation from terrorists. It didn't begin with the DP World acquisition but when a rival stevedore in Florida hired a single lobbyist, who knew just where to go. New York Senator Charles Schumer helped transform what had previously been a banal story in the financial press into a political brushfire that engulfed the nation and scorched the President.

Reporters-especially on cable networks and especially Lou Dobbs-bought into the security angle, reporting that the Dubai company would take over security operations. Days later, many newspapers-including the New York Times-were forced into corrections and retractions, clarifying that security operations would remain under the jurisdiction of United States Customs and the Coast Guard.

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But the mindset sunk in. The public rallied behind congressional leaders demanding a halt or delay to the sale to the United Arab Emirates company. Democrats used the issue to try and appear tough on national security. Republicans used it to distance from a currently-unpopular president as midterm elections near. Even after DP World backed out, the House voted 377-38 Wednesday to formally express its opposition to DP World running any U.S. port terminals.

After it ended, only a few newspaper editorial boards (among Bush's only supporters) mourned the deal's death. "Facts didn't stop Democrats and Republicans from feeding hysteria that killed ports deal," wrote the Indianapolis Star in an editorial. "The populist frenzy that caused Dubai Ports World to abandon a deal to manage six U.S. ports is another disturbing sign that protectionism is on the rise in America. Facts and reason fell victim to fear in this mess."

But there could be more lasting wounds too. After DP World backed out, Bush warned that the fracas could alienate the United States' crucial allies in the Middle East. Perhaps it was no coincidence then that the UAE backed out of trade talks with the U.S. after the deal fell through. In a speech Friday, Mr. Bush cautioned against an anti-Arab bias, saying he was "concerned about a broader message this issue could send to our friends and allies around the world, especially in the Middle East."

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