The Politics of Port Security
If there's one thing the Bush administration does well, it's the symbolic politics of national security. They might not be able to capture bin Laden, run a tribunal system for detainees, or even secure nuclear power plants, but when it comes to getting in front of the cameras and looking like they're doing a good job, it really has been "Mission Accomplished."
So I am absolutely baffled as to why they're pushing this takeover of major East Coast ports by a company based in the United Arab Emirates, a country that has harbored and funded terrorists. In doing so, they've handed the Democrats an unscrewupable--even for Democrats--issue on which to run to the president's right, and prompted criticism from every embattled Republican governor and Congress member. As Bull Moose wrote this morning, "[T]he left and right are united against the port deal. This is a debacle that can bring together Ann Coulter and Arianna Huffington." Beyond symbolic squawkers, I can't imagine even the leftiest lefty on Daily Kos speaking up for the Dubai interests, nor even the most reflexive Bush-worshipping Frei Republik apologist backing the administration on this one.
So who's going to defend this thing? The Times notes that Michael Chertoff, Homeland Security secretary and a New Yorker, has been on TV citing unspecified "assurances in place" that everything is going to be fine. But this is the guy who was just slammed for his handling of Hurricane Katrina, and is well known for his managerial deficiencies, now saying "trust us!" Against him, we've got everyone from Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich, a Republican who's surely thinking this will help him in what looks like an uphill re-election campaign this fall, to New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, who even more certainly is thinking that some national security cred will help him win a very tough race against the son of 9/11 Commission chair Tom Kean in their November contest. Menendez and Hillary Clinton are likely to propose legislation that would ban future transactions of this type; will any Senator up for re-election this fall vote against that bill?
This looks like a huge self-inflicted wound for the Bush administration, energizing Democrats and dividing Republicans. Even if there's airtight justification in the details for this transaction, the reason these guys generally win political fights is that they take positions that don't need to be explained. John Kerry's infamous "I voted for the legislation before I voted against it" was explainable; it was just that few bothered to go past a statement that was idiotic on its face. Turning over port security to a company based in a country that harbors terrorist killers seems similarly dense, and it's very unlikely that many people will press for the specifics--even if the secrecy-obsessed Bushies were to offer them.