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Ports in a storm

Politics | Bush clamors for safety of veto pen over UAE takeover plan

Issue: "Muddy Gras," March 4, 2006

President George Bush found himself the target of a political firing squad made up of both Democrats and Republicans when details of an obscure port deal began to rattle around Capitol Hill last week. At issue: Should the United States approve a deal that would turn over operational control of six major U.S. ports to a state-owned company from the United Arab Emirates?

Pledging a veto against congressional threats to stop it, President Bush insisted that the transfer of operations at ports in New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, New Orleans, Miami, and Philadelphia from British corporation Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co. to Dubai Ports World, which recently bought the London-based firm, wouldn't compromise national security.

But so loud and bipartisan were the objections, even the White House was forced to spring into defense mode with two unusual moves. First, Mr. Bush made it clear he would, for the first time, pick up his veto pen to block any legislation that would delay the deal. Second, the president-in another ultra-rare move-invited reporters into the conference room on Air Force One to address the growing outcry.

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Once he landed back in Washington, he met with reporters again on the White House lawn. "I think it sends a terrible signal to friends around the world that it's OK for a company from one country to manage the port, but not a country that plays by the rules and has got a good track record from another part of the world . . ." Mr. Bush said.

But lawmakers weren't convinced. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called the White House "tone deaf" for not anticipating public outcry. "Most Americans are scratching their heads, wondering why this company from this region now," Mr. Graham said on Fox News Sunday. Other lawmakers were more pointed, questioning whether a nation with a seedy history with other Islamo-fascist regimes should be in control of U.S. shipping. "Handing the keys to U.S. strategic ports to a regime that recognized the Taliban is not a sound next step in our war against terror," Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said.

But, as The Washington Post-its liberal editorial board rushing to Mr. Bush's defense-pointed out, "You know there's something suspicious going on when multiple members of Congress-House, Senate, Democrat, Republican, future presidential candidates of all stripes-spontaneously unite around an issue that none of them had known existed a week earlier." The Los Angeles Times editorialized that the bipartisan "hissy fit" was simply a way for Congress to "pander to the terrorism-rattled xenophobe in us all."

In fact, the DP World takeover had become old news in the financial press which, a week before, had reported on the deal, noting DP's global reputation for efficiency and competence. The United States Coast Guard-as it has-will continue to provide security at the ports, and the Customs Service will still be charged with inspecting the contents of the vessels as they dock. DPW would stevedore the harbor and manage American longshoremen who load and unload the vessels.

But lawmakers didn't seem ready to back down, charging at the very least that the president should hold up the deal until Congress could investigate it. Some even challenged Mr. Bush's veto threat. Longtime GOP strategist and former deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee Eddie Mahe questioned both White House instincts and lawmakers' reaction. "I think it's nothing but political baloney," Mr. Mahe said. "Should [the administration] have anticipated this? Absolutely. . . . I think the proposal is probably in pretty deep trouble."

How did the United Arab Emirates go from terror haven to a nation the Bush administration wants to make friends with? After all, The 9/11 Commission Report paints a portrait of the UAE as a nation used by 9/11 hijackers for money laundering. The UAE has also served as a hub for A.Q. Khan's rogue international nuclear weapons technology syndicate. Mr. Khan, father of the Pakistani nuclear bomb, used Dubai as a shipping terminal to secretly distribute nuclear weapons components to nations like Iran, Iraq, and North Korea.

But in recent years, the UAE has been cooperative. U.S. warplanes have flown out of the UAE and U.S. vessels have sailed from the Arab nation's docks. And the UAE helped the United States by apprehending the mastermind of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole.

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