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Another incredible PR blunder

By
February 23, 2006

What the White House needs desperately is someone with public relations sense, otherwise the next three years are going to be even longer for President Bush than one might expect given the state of a presidency already under siege.

The latest example of bad judgment is the approval of a contract to turn over the management of six American ports to a company from an Arab nation that has alleged ties to terrorists. Talk about needlessly giving your enemies ammunition and embarrassing your allies during a congressional election year.

What is particularly disturbing is that no one at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was sensitive enough to see the potential PR fiasco that approving the port management sale by a British firm to a company in the United Arab Emirates would cause. The last time anyone looked most of the nation’s terrorist enemies hail from that portion of the world and, in fact, a couple of the perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001 attack had links in Dubai.

Sure, opposing this decision may be sending the rest of the Middle East a bad message as the president claims in threatening to veto any congressional attempt to stop it. But that isn’t half as bad, at least in the short term, as what the contract, justifiable or not, does to create turmoil on Capitol Hill, where Bush’s hopes for accomplishing anything of substance seem to be diminishing rapidly. That is not to mention what this silly decision adds to the steadily increasing fears of Republicans that they might lose control of both houses of Congress in the November balloting.

The fact is most experts in and out of government have tried to calm the furor by correctly noting that it makes no difference what company manages the loading and unloading of ships in places like Baltimore and Philadelphia, two of the ports covered by the lease. The security is controlled by the United States and the labor force is the same as when the British firm had the contract. They, and for that matter the president himself, have pointed out that many of the nation’s ports are managed by foreign countries.

While that is true, deciding to approve a deal with a UAE is sort of like giving a Japanese outfit the contract to manage the port at Honolulu just before Dec. 7, 1941 _ not that one can legitimately suspect the UAE company of plotting anything sinister. It simply makes people nervous, particularly when experts agree this country’s ports, where thousands of containers are off loaded every day, are extremely vulnerable despite official claims of security. Images of a weapon of mass destruction being smuggled here in a cargo vessel make us all a bit hysterical.

Critics of the contract contend it gives potential villains in the Gulf region access to the layout and weakness of the various ports. How do we know how secure the contracting company is from terrorist infiltration, assurances not withstanding, they wonder?

But in the long run, it is not those concerns that brought an immediate reaction bordering on disbelief from even the Republican leadership in Congress. House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, both already feeling like being placed in political jeopardy by the White House has become a way of life, called for the president to disapprove the contract or face legislation doing so.

A presidential veto _ the first of Bush’s tenure _. would do further harm to the president’s image given the fact there is a strong likelihood that action would be overturned. A cynic might see a veto and its defeat as a calculated way for the White House to get out of this jam, but that is a bit Machiavellian even for this MBA-loaded administration, and carries with it the chance the president really would once again look like a duck that is lame before its time.

This isn’t the first time the president has misjudged a response. It is just the first time such a response should have been as obvious to him as it was to most Americans even though he sincerely believes that reaction is entirely wrong. A good, old -fashioned PR expert from the corporate world should have been around to warn him. Go out and hire one, Mr. President, and listen to him.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)