February 27, 2006
How Ports Deal Landed in Deep Water

By Robert Novak


WASHINGTON -- It was no surprise that Sen. Charles Schumer, a fiercely partisan Democrat always hunting for political advantage, ignited the furor over management of America's ports. But why did congressional leaders of George W. Bush's Republican Party join the attack?

A second-term president hovering around 40 percent in popular approval cannot expect full support on sensitive issues even from his own party. But President Bush contributed to lack of GOP backing with faulty White House outreach to Capitol Hill, followed by his injudicious veto threat against still undefined legislation.

Beyond the Bush political operation's shortcomings, deeper problems are reflected by overwhelming public opposition to a company owned by the government of a close Arab ally operating U.S. ports. Polls suggest the darker side of the American mind: isolationist, protectionist, nativist and xenophobic. Bush's ceaseless efforts to rouse his countrymen to support the war against terrorism may have unleashed the dogs of anti-Arab prejudice.

The firestorm over whether Dubai Ports World should be permitted to replace a British company in control of U.S. ports is unexpected largesse for Democrats, desperate to regain control of Congress this year. Left-wing Democrats led by Schumer and Sen. Hillary Clinton seek the opportunity to trump Bush and the Republicans on their strong suit of national security. Newly appointed Sen. Robert Menendez, a less than appealing candidate shown by early polls to be trailing in the Democratic bastion of New Jersey, jumped into the fight against the port deal.

Republicans hurriedly joined the attack on the United Arab Emirates, an indispensable U.S. ally in the Middle East. Rep. Vito Fossella, suggesting that the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in his New York City district was imperiled by UAE management of the ports, compared the deal to letting Arabs control security at American airports. In fact, the Dubai company would not affect U.S. government security, and the ports would remain under state and local ownership. Rep. Peter King, the new Homeland Security Committee chairman, has acted as though he wanted immediate House action by suspending the rules.

It is not merely New Yorkers King and Fossella and other lawmakers with ports in their districts who have spoken out. In South Dakota, far from saltwater, freshman Sen. John Thune said Arab management of the ports gave him "heartburn." With Congress in recess, Thune typified lawmakers encountering massive public resistance back home. That mood was generated by the feeding frenzy on cable television and the Internet that, in turn, was triggered by bipartisan Congressional attacks.

Deputy Secretary Robert Kimmitt, an experienced Washington hand, managed the deal at Treasury without giving a heads-up to top Republicans in Congress. House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist might have been less quick to attack the port arrangement if they'd had advance word. Hastert heard nothing from a former staffer, Kevin Fromer, now handling Treasury legislative affairs.

When the Democrats first opened fire, Presidential Counselor Dan Bartlett was alerted by congressional Republicans to stormy waters ahead and urged to do something about it. Bartlett replied in the imperial style of this presidency by suggesting he hoped Republicans could support the deal, but if they could not, it just would be too bad. That was followed by the president's rare session with reporters aboard Air Force One in which he threatened a veto.

Sen. Richard Shelby, whose Banking Committee has jurisdiction of the issue, was silent at first, but only because he was traveling in Europe. When he issued a brief, limited circulation statement last Thursday, it was not good news for the White House. "From Treasury's perspective," he said, "the [foreign acquisitions] process with respect to the Dubai transaction worked perfectly; from the Banking Committee's perspective, it failed miserably." He set hearings for Thursday that will not be pleasant.

The rest of the world may wonder how a relatively routine commercial transaction turned Republican leaders against their president. Frank McKenna, the Canadian ambassador who is leaving Washington this week, has cracked the code by appreciating the existence of two U.S. governments, one executive and the other legislative. That system requires more presidential finesse than was displayed in handling the Dubai contract.

Copyright 2006 Creators Syndicate

Robert Novak

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