Compromise may be difficult in port debate

Reconciling security, political concerns to be critical during 45-day review of management pact, experts say

March 01, 2006|By MEREDITH COHN | MEREDITH COHN,SUN REPORTER

For those who oppose a deal that would allow a state-owned Arab company to manage some work at U.S. seaports, and for those who see no security threat from it, a middle ground may be hard to find in the next 45 days, observers say.

That's how long the federal government has as it re-reviews the sale of a British cargo handling company to Dubai Ports World, owned by the government of Dubai and poised to assume control at six U.S. ports tomorrow.

Ultimately, the decision will lie with President Bush, who has consistently backed the deal but accepted the new security review after a backlash from critics who called the first one flawed and secretive.

Port and security experts say that for some the issue is about national security, but for others, it's part or all about politics. They contend that some politicians have more to gain by keeping the issue in the headlines than finding an acceptable outcome. And with a CBS poll released yesterday showing sagging approval ratings for the president and 70 percent public disapproval of the Dubai deal, elected officials from both parties will feel emboldened to continue their protests.

But, some note, political winds change fast and no one can say if a story about the generally low-profile seaports that burst onto the front pages two weeks ago can continue to grab headlines for 45 more days.

"How long is the news cycle? It's become very short," said Peter Tirschwell, a security and shipping industry expert and editorial director of the Journal of Commerce, a trade journal that focuses on transportation. "Gov. [Robert L.] Ehrlich in Maryland went from being `concerned' to `more comfortable' with the deal in less than a week," he said. "You've already seen a lot of softening of the language.

"The tide has begun turning. The underlying reason is the facts support the trend," Tirschwell said.

Tirschwell believes there are security gaps that need to be addressed, but not because Dubai Ports World is taking over cargo handling contracts in Baltimore and five other U.S. ports from Britain's Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co. Of primary concern is the lack of security surrounding loading and transporting cargo containers before they reach American shores, he said. If citizens become more comfortable with the deal during continued public discussion, more elected officials will too, he said.

Public fear

But other observers say no amount of time or concessions can satisfy a public conditioned since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to fear Arab countries, according to Stephen Gale, co-chairman of the Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Lawmakers won't help calm public fears because opposing the deal makes them "look tougher on terrorism than the other guy," said Gale, also a professor of terrorism at the University of Pennsylvania.

"The real issues here are getting drowned out," he said. "This is not a security issue. It's a political one. We're going to have 45 days of Democrats squeezing Republicans on terrorism concerns, 45 days of embarrassing the administration. There's no trust. The administration will have 45 days to find a way out of this deal."

But while some foreign affairs and security experts say the Dubai contracts for cargo handling pose no serious threat and the cosmopolitan United Arab Emirates is more focused on investing and tourism than terrorism, many elected officials insist there are real security concerns, or at least that the government review was lacking.

They say the UAE was home to Sept. 11 terrorist hijackers, and that Dubai recognized the former Taliban regime of Afghanistan before the attacks.

On Capitol Hill, where the issue mushroomed about two weeks ago after the British-owned cargo-handling company Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co. announced its $6.8 billion deal with Dubai was about to be completed, a bipartisan group of lawmakers continues to hammer the plan, which affects ports in Baltimore, New York, New Jersey, Miami, Philadelphia and New Orleans.

Democratic senators have introduced legislation to ban companies owned by foreign governments from controlling U.S. port operations. Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the bill's lead proponents, said after 45 days the Bush administration may lose its legal authority to block the deal.

Ways and Means trade subcommittee Chairman Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr., a Florida Republican, and the ranking Democrat on the panel, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, said they would announce similar legislation today.

Sen. Susan M. Collins, a Maine Republican and chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, introduced a bill to require another security review and congressional consultation before the deal is permitted. She and other Republicans have not discounted blocking the deal if the review is unsatisfactory.

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