The Dubai Ports World controversy has unfortunately demonstrated that the only bipartisanship out there right now is in matters of fear.
Many leaders in both parties have condemned the deal that would turn over operations and management of several major U.S. ports, including the one in Miami — which I am viewing from a spot about 30 stories high overlooking the port.
DP World CEO Mohammed Sharaf has suggested that Americans need to become more educated about the global character of his firm.
I have the same kinds of concerns about DP World that I would have about any major port operations firm — be it from Japan, China, Korea, Greece, Holland, Indonesia, or any other nation.
There is an accute historical amnesia problem in Washington. In September 1997, Hal Creel, then Chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission, threatened to hold Japanese ships at U.S. ports because of corruption problems at Japanese ports.
This case differed from the Dubai Ports Worldwide case mostly because the Japanese were not trying to take over U.S. ports — but the corruption in Japan’s stevaedore operations was having a seriously negative impact on the U.S. shipping industry. Given the high level of corruption that existed in this pre-9/11 setting in Japan accompanied with the reality that the 30,000 member strong Aum Shinrikyo terrorist cult had gassed to death innocent people in the Marunouchi subway line.
It is not hard to imagine Japan’s then-shipping operations being penetrable to those who would do others harm by shipping WMD-related materials in port containers.
I watched yesterday many numbers of ships like the one above moving in and out of Miami’s port, and it should concern all Americans that only 5% of these containers are undergoing inspection — even when it comes to radiation sensing.
Many Americans — Republicans, Democrats, and Independents — don’t trust the Dubai Ports Worldwide deal because fundamentally they don’t trust the UAE during this time of serious tension with the Middle East.
But the deeper issue is that we have slipped from a “High Trust” type of globalization to “High Fear Globalization.” People, products, money, and ideas are just not going to move through the world in the same contours they once did — and this port ownership debate is another part of this trend.
Americans need to realize that we have created a highly fragile system for ourselves in which concern about who owns our ports ought to be matched by who owns our debt and the future value of the dollar. While many Americans worried about the sale of Unocal to a Chinese state-owned firm, the bigger issue in my mind is that many of the crown jewels of the semiconductor design and production business are slipping to China.
It is right to be concerned about port safety — no matter who owns and operates the port. We need redundant layers of security in this country, but we need to equally aware of the fact that American quality of life is less and less a function of our own productive capacity. Those who control the “temperature” of the American economic and US consumption live in Asia and the Middle East today.
Thus, what I hope these hot-and-bothered Democratic and Republican politicians pounding their feet over the DP World deal do is to transform this debate into one long overdue about basic port and border security which we do not have in place — though George Bush has had no problem spending money on lots of his other priorities.
Here is one last question that Senators should pose to the President, however:
After 9/11, Reagan National Airport was shut down longer than any other airport in the United States because of fears of its proximity to major government sites. It finally opened after a number of screening and new airline and passenger management practices were put into place. Would George Bush ever allow Dubai Ports World — if an airport management service owner — to purchase control of Reagan National?
Even though I think that the “issue” is container security and screening, if the answer to the question above is “no”, then the Dubai Ports World deal and all other such deals with foreign operators of major nodes of U.S. infrastruture should be rejected.
But to reject, America must get itself off the narcotic of cheap foreign financing and inbound investment that are limiting our ability to say “no”.
— Steve Clemons