An ally bows out

March 10, 2006

There's no cause for celebration in yesterday's announcement that a Dubai-owned company will sell its interest in the management of six American ports in order to quell a political prairie fire that was about to engulf the White House.

The decision by Dubai Ports World of the United Arab Emirates to transfer to a U.S. company its North America-based operations, including a 65-worker unit in Baltimore, was clearly a favor to President Bush. His administration so badly handled UAE's acquisition of the port operations that the president faced an open rebellion in his own party that rendered him powerless to stop legislation thwarting the arrangement.

But the diplomatic grace of UAE's gesture only highlights what was at base a victory for mindless prejudice stoked by political fear-mongering that won't improve security at the port of Baltimore or anywhere else.

Prompted by high-decibel media coverage of vague security concerns raised primarily by Democrats, constituents all over the country burned up phone lines to Capitol Hill to protest the prospect of stevedore operations at U.S. ports being run by the state-owned company of an Arab nation. That the UAE is a key ally in the war on terror and a leading trading partner - and most of its employees here are U.S. citizens - didn't blunt the outrage.

Perhaps it's understandable that Americans have reached this shameful point after the five fearful years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, during which the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq have made American perceptions of the Muslim world immeasurably worse. Leaders, though, have a responsibility to rise above such emotional currents and seek to channel them productively.

The Bush administration blundered by failing to anticipate that an Arab nation's involvement in a port management company would raise questions in Congress, which should have been addressed in advance. Most lawmakers simply fanned the flames of fear - with Democrats seizing the chance to move right of Republicans on national security, and Republicans trying to hold their ground on a signature issue. Meanwhile, nothing is being done to actually improve port safety, such as providing more than token inspections of the tons of container cargo moved daily.

No doubt some resentment at the globalization of trade also runs through the public reaction to the UAE deal. But the United States can't withdraw into itself either for economic or security concerns. What's needed is leadership that will ensure that the nation's interests are protected as well as possible and make that case convincingly to the American people instead of joining in a panic-driven stampede.

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