Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Portgate

Yesterday, I read a news headline that said that the Bush Administration has approved a plan to turn over control of 6 major US ports to an Arab government with ties to terrorism.

As I read it, I thought that not even the Bush Administration could be that stupid.

Last evening I started my research, and discovered that the moral fault this time does not rest with the Bush Administration but those who were promoting the interpretation of the story found in that headline. That interpretation is false.

So far, I have not found a single argument against the sale that identifies some activity or policy of Dubai Ports World as a corporation or any officers or staff within the company that gives us any reason to suspect their concern for security. If we are suspecting them of being a threat to our security, and it is not because of something they did or said, then it must be for some other reason.

Ultimately, the only argument I have been able to identify can only be interpreted as assuming, "The Dubai Ports World is headquartered in an Arab country. ‘Arab’ is so clearly synonymous with evil and untrustworthy that only a seriously incompetent idiot would consider allowing an Arab company to purchase these types of rights."

The moral quality of such an argument is quite poor.

Some people who heard the original interpretation of the story and trusted the authors to represent the case accurately. They, of course, would have reason to be concerned about such a policy. However, the people they trusted to tell them the correct story proved to be untrustworthy.

The Real Story

To the best of my ability to determine, here is what happened:

A British company went looking to make money loading and unloading ships. They bought or leased some piers and some warehouses, set up some boat-loading equipment, hired some local workers from the longshoreman's union, and then told shipping companies, "We will load and unload your boats at the following rates."

They became quite good at it, so they went around the world looking for other ports where they could do the same thing. This includes six ports in America, where they set up their business, hired some members of the Longshoreman's union, and started loading and unloading ships.

There is nothing in this story that is morally any different than that of an American petroleum company going to the United Arab Republic and saying, "We are experts at drilling and shipping oil so we would like to offer you a deal where we will drill for oil in your country and arrange to ship it to your paying customers."

There is nothing in this story that is morally any different than an American company going to Indonesia and saying, "We are experts at building water treatment facilities. Therefore, we would like to offer you a deal where we will build a water treatment facility in your country and collect revenue for the clean water that we sell to your people."

What we are talking about is a standard practice.

The only difference between this case and a large number of other cases is the fact that the company is Arab. Objections only make sense if we accept an assumption of the form that "Arab" is associated with "Evil," and feel their sense of security drain away. It is an emotional response much like driving down the street in a nice shiny Lexis, turning the corner, seeing a group of young black men, and getting an irresistible urge to lock the car door.

The Security Issue

Obviously, if we allow Arabs to run a business loading and unloading ships in our ports, we will immediately have hoards of terrorists loading and unloading weapons of mass destruction right under our very noses, right?

And if we allow the Jews to control the banks they will certainly use this to manipulate the economy, directing vast quantities of wealth to other Jews while leaving the rest of us poor and starving.

Of course, this type of argument is morally suspect.

If this form of reasoning were valid, we could argue that we face an unreasonable security risk when Arab pilots fly passenger and cargo planes into and out of this country. Indeed, there are probably Arab-own airlines flying planes into and out of this country every day. Obviously, by allowing this, we are creating a situation where it is just a matter of time until one of these Arab pilots decides to take out another skyscraper. Why not pass a law that only American citizens can operate airplanes over American airspace -- all in the name of national security?

Think about the Arab airline flying planes into and out of this country every day that I mentioned above. They may even decide to lease out a section of some terminal so that the can handle the passengers and cargo coming in and out. If they are efficient at this, then perhaps they could make some money loading and unloading planes belonging to other airlines at their gates. This type of situation is no different than the situation that would exist with respect to the shipping companies.

One important similarity is that, in both cases, the company doing the work is not the organization that handles security. Customs and inspection are handled by the department of Homeland Security, which imposes rules and regulations on how to handle cargo coming into and out of the country. The employees -- those who actually do the work -- are people who live in this country. In case of the shipping business, they are members of the Longshoreman's Union.

Now, if the Bush Administration were arguing for having some Arab country run the Coast Guard or take over local port authorities, there would be reason for concern. Reading the original headlines, it sounded as if this is what Bush was trying to do, and that certainly would be insane. However, that is not what is happening.

The Wrong Message

The White House is defending the decision to allow this sale to go through in part by saying that canceling it would send the wrong message. In this, they are exactly right. This sends the message that, "It does not matter if you are good or evil, if you have struggled to produce a good work record and are as concerned to prevent terrorists as we are. We do not care about such things. We only care about whether you are an Arab business and, if you are, you are not welcome here."

This is the message that will circulate around the Arab community if this deal gets cancelled -- that Americans do not care what you do as an individual; it only cares about whether you are Arab. And, if you are, then the Americans will look at everything you do with suspicion.

Instead, we should be promoting a standard of individual responsibility. We want to communicate the message that Arabs who seek to live in peace with the rest of society will be accepted into that society. This message is communicated by a policy that determins whether Dubai Ports World gets approval depends solely on the character, and not on the nationality, of its leaders.

Summary

I am not saying that the Bush Administration handled this situation with anything more than its customary incompetence. I have not seen any evidence one way or the other on this issue. However, from what I can tell, the people who are complaining about this situation have not seen any evidence either. They are basing their conclusion on nothing more solid than the assumption "Arab = Evil."

For six years the Bush Administration has gotten away with everything from torture to secret executive order suspending the Constitution. It is exasperating to see that the first time others decide to take a shot at the President's policies, it is a shot taken without any careful consideration of what the shooter is aiming at.

8 comments:

Drake Walker said...

For the last couple of days I have been very upset about the decision made by the Bush administration regarding Dubai World Port. I had only seen headlines, short blurbs and heard extreme left-wing talk-show host Randy Rhodes talk about it. I hadn't even read any articles on it! I fantasized that terrorists would be pouring out of our major ports by the boatload, weapons and drugs in mass quantities. I even had trouble sleeping last night. Boy, do I feel like a total dumbass. The 9/11 incident, subsequent war in Afghanistan and Iraq, all the huff about Iran's nuclear program, the Danish cartoon issue and riots; they all have tainted my view of Arabs as a whole. I fell for all the fear-mongering and suspicion. In this day-and-age of constant media blitzing it seems hard to separate what I believe from what I am told over and over again. Thanks Alonzo for waking me up.

-Drake

Marc Higbie said...

I agree with your assessment of the (media)situation Alonzo, but I can imagine one decent reason for disallowing it, if we (meaning intelligence folks) beleive that the UAE is a pro-terrorism state then disallowing their state run company from controlling US ports seems a valid security choice.

On a seperate point I am not a fan of any state run enterprise of a foriegn nation taking control in my country, as a matter of sovriegnty and principle.

Marc Higbie

Drake Walker said...

Jesus! Marc, I've been trying to track you down these last couple of days! drake.walker at gmail .com

Marc Higbie said...

Heh, small world, I wasn't sure if this was you or not (I win for having a marginally more unique name)

Marc :)

Freemage said...

I've been following the story. You're right--the initial outrage has been overblown and premature. Mind you, the Bush administration is, in some respects, reaping what they sowed in establishing the Arab world as the source of all evil.

What's worse has been their incompetence in handling the furor. Tone-deaf doesn't even begin to describe it. Once again, the Bush administration, given an opportunity to speak openly on an issue and set the record straight, has reflexively opted for secrecy and concealment.

Instead of showing the sort of tests that have been applied to the company in examining the deal, and giving at least SOME insight into how the various committees and agencies that reviewed it were able to come to the conclusion that everything was on the up-and-up, the Bush administration has clammed up, refusing to release any of the reports.

Ivan Fischer said...

I would just like to thank you for easing my fears a bit.
You see, the other day I heard Bush on the BBC explaining the issue as eloquently as only he can, and when I realised that his arguments seemed sound to me, I started fearing for my sanity.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Marc Higbie

I agree that if valid reason can be found for disallowing Dubai Ports World from running the ports than we must pay attention to those reasons.

I am making no claims that the Bush Administration did a good job of vetting this company and that it passed those concerns.

I am simply saying that any decision must be based on reasons other than the fact that this is an arab country. It is not legitimate to stand in the way of this sale unless there are in fact reasons of this type.

Freemage

Bush and company may be reaping what they sowed, but embracing this idea that 'arab = evil' does not just harm Bush. It also promotes unfair discrimination against Arabs who happen to be good people. As such, it provides Arabs with much less incentive to become good people - people with whom we can live in peace.

We must recognize and embrace those who truly are tolerant and opposed to violence, or we do nothing to encourage people there to be tolerant and opposed to violence.

ivan fischer

In hearing the news that Bush did not know about the deal until it was already done, I am quite prepared to accept the possibility thta he stumbled into being right rather than that it happened as a matter of design.

Anonymous said...

There is an existing oversight committee that is supposed to review such mergers. Exon-Florio requires such investigation in the cases of businesses owned by foreign governments. According to the whitehouse, the oversight committee voted unanimously. Neither Rumsfeld (on that committee), nor Treasury Secretary Snow (the chairman of that committee) knew about this so-called unanimous vote until they heard about it in the news. In addition, I understand that Snow is looking to make about $32,000,000 on this merger: his CSX stock from when he was CEO before being appointed to Secretary of the Treasury. When CSX was purchased by The Carlyle Group (related to bush, sr), all his options automatically vested.