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Commentary: Sigh of Relief on Dubai? Or Just a Sigh?

Saturday, March 11, 2006

It looks like the controversial Dubai Ports World deal is now doomed, as least in the United States. WNYC's Brian Lehrer wonders if it's time for a sigh of relief, or just a sigh.

LEHRER: As a New Yorker, I'm supposed to feel safer because of DPW's decision to divest its US holdings. After all, it was New York politicians of both parties - Chuck Schumer and Peter King - who turned a business-as-usual maritime deal into a global diplomatic incident, supposedly to protect my safety. But I think they both had other motives, and I'm ambivalent at best about what they have wrought.

Credit Senator Schumer with a political master stroke: he spotted the port deal when it was only a story on the business pages, and realized he could use it to reposition the entire Democratic party: as tougher on homeland security than the President - for once in their lives. And he knew it would play well with to his hometown crowd, since the Port of New York was affected by the sale.

Congressman King, from a Long Island district hard hit by September 11th, quickly decided to own the issue too, breaking with the President. And with his leadership as cover, in a Congressional election year featuring President Bush as a liability, Republicans from everywhere seized the opportunity to run away.

In a stunning bipartisan display, the House Appropriations Committee voted 62-2 Wednesday to block the deal. A divided America has found an issue to unite around.

But color me conflicted. If the defeat of the US deal is a good thing, it's good because it shined a light on the many holes in port security that couldn't find an audience until now. And because it revealed the failure of the Bush Administration to consult local security experts, like Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, before making decisions for New York.

But no one ever convinced me the deal itself is actually a risk. Dubai had a questionable relationship with Al Quaeda and the Taliban before 9/11, but a record of aggressive cooperation with the US military ever since. The Emirate of Dubai is basically a muiltinational corporation with a flag. Allowing terrorists to use their port operations is no more in their interest today than it is for any other port company. No wonder I've been getting calls like this, from Khaldoon in Montclair, on my weekday talk show.

KHALDOON: (synopsis) I am a law-abiding moderate Arab-American. I denounce extremism and terrorism, but this looks like bias to me. What will Arabs around the world think?

LEHRER: And where, I wonder, were the civil libertarians these past few weeks? On wiretapping and the Patriot Act, there's one on every corner warning us of the dangers of profiling Arabs and trading liberty for security. That's a good thing. But they never stood up for Dubai Ports World as innocent until at least suspected of something. Maybe it was just too delicious to watch President Bush take the hit. Ah, politics.

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