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Shameless political posturing

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February 24, 2006

By DALE McFEATTERS

The political firestorm over port security shows American politics at their most shameless and, for a change, President Bush is on the receiving end of it.

National security has always been the Republicans’ _ and the president’s _ best issue, and regardless of what Bush believes about the ins and outs of port management, congressional Republicans are not going to let it get away from them. And Democrats see a rare opportunity to get to the right of Bush on the issue.

Rep. Sue Myrick, R-N.C., wrote an open letter to Bush saying, "In regards to selling American ports to the United Arab Emirates, not just NO but HELL NO!" Aside from getting her facts wrong _ it’s not a sale, but contracts to manage the ports _ it would have been unthinkable just a year ago, in the lingering flow of Bush’s second inaugural, for a Republican backbencher to address the president this way.

The increasingly explicit accusation here is that because the UAE firm that inherited the management contracts for six U.S. ports through its acquisition of a British firm is owned by Muslim Arab Mideasterners, it will become a conduit for infiltrating terrorists and weapons of mass destruction into the United States.

Never mind that the Bush administration says that the UAE has been a valuable military and diplomatic ally in the war on terrorism. Never mind that the management company, Dubai Ports World, has been intensively vetted by the U.S. government, including the departments of Defense, State, Homeland Security and Treasury. And never mind that U.S. port security is the responsibility of the Coast Guard and Customs.

Lawmakers from both parties are threatening legislation to block the deal, and Bush has threatened to wield his first veto if they do.

This is an issue on which congressional Republicans, facing trouble at the polls in November, can distance themselves from a beleaguered president not faring terribly well in the polls. And the opportunistic Democrats see political advantage and a chance to inflict a crippling defeat on Bush by overriding his veto.

Bush aides can be faulted for being, as Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said, "tone-deaf politically" for not sensing the public-relations ramifications of the deal. But they went by the book in approving it, and no one thought it needed to go as high as the Oval Office.

The fact that the approval took place Jan. 17 suggests much of the outrage is manufactured. These sudden experts on port security seem to have been unaware that a lot of U.S. port operations are foreign-run. Chinese firms, for example, run two big marine terminals in New York harbor.

The likely outcome of the controversy may be a delay while assurances are made, safeguards put in place, vigilance promised, etc. But the president has taken a beating and so, too, may our reputation among Arab nations, because it suggests that no matter how much they cooperate with us, in a pinch we don’t trust them.