The state of port security
Published February 27, 2006

Much furor has erupted over the potential change of management at several major U.S. ports from the current company—British-based P&O—to an organization from the Middle East, Dubai Ports World. Members on both sides of the aisle in Congress are raising a fuss, claiming that this control transfer will jeopardize national security.

Many have pointed to the fact that two of the terrorists involved in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S. were from Dubai. Similarly, several of the terrorists used Dubai as a conduit for funds and passed through there on their way to the U.S., according to the Sept. 11th Commission report. Political cartoonists and average citizens are babbling with fear that “Arab Terrorists” will take over port security.

I’m not sure whether his reasoning is moral or economic, but President Bush is right on the money on this issue: the uproar is nothing more than political grandstanding and anti-Arab xenophobia.

Just what does this transfer of control entail? The $6.8 billion arrangement will change management of the ports from one foreign U.S. ally—Great Britain—to another—Dubai. Contrary to much of the screams of panic in Congress and on the Internet, port management does not equate to security. The large part of port security is managed by U.S. customs and immigration officers (according to a Newsday report) in conjunction with the Coast Guard; the port management company merely employs the longshoremen who transfer cargo from ship to shore and vice-versa.

Moreover, the employees that the ports manage are overwhelmingly American and unlikely to change. Are they all suddenly terrorists because they now will have an Arab boss? Hardly.

As Newsday points out in its analysis, the Sept. 11th terrorists all took advantage of American banks and businesses before their attack, and had no more trouble traveling into our country than they did moving through Dubai. That doesn’t mean that our government wasn’t trying to stop people like them. Since 2001, Dubai, like the U.S., has tightened the noose around the terrorists’ necks, catching several key figures in al Qaeda.

A recent Reuters report quoted several experts in port security, none of whom felt that the Dubai deal would adversely effect the current security situation. Dubai has been recently praised for cooperating fully with American efforts to secure ports, and as one of our allies in the Middle East supported our intervention in Iraq (for better or for worse), and even donated $100 million dollars to relief efforts in areas ravaged by hurricane Katrina.

Congress has been repeatedly warned about the poor state of port security in this country, and has responded slowly and insufficiently. The Bush Administration has done no better, relegating defense of domestic infrastructure to a low priority, even declaring that protecting our shores and vulnerable infrastructure from future attacks is not a federal responsibility. Stephen Flynn, former Coast Guard officer and Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations argued in a 2004 Foreign Affairs article that, despite the wishful thinking of our government, private industry has not stepped up to the plate to secure infrastructure in the United States from attack.

Little has changed recently. Now, faced with an opportunity to look tough on terrorism, Democrats in Congress have grabbed at the Dubai Ports World transfer as evidence of the Administration’s security shortfalls—completely overlooking the actual security issues at our ports and fanning the flames of anti-Arab sentiment in the U.S. for political gain. Frightened Republicans, worried about upcoming midterm elections that are looking grim thanks to the President’s flagging approval ratings, are threatening legislation to block the transfer.

Not only is this ugly display distasteful on its face, it also sends a disturbing signal to the Arab world: try to join the free market of the West, and you will be denied. Dubai is not a terrorist state. It is not part of any Axis of Evil that I am aware of. Though it is not a democratic state, it is an ally of the United States. And yet, when it tries to enter a role that the United Kingdom has filled for many years—as administrator of several U.S. ports—the backlash is staggering, swift, and ugly.

If we wonder why the Arab world hates America so much, we need look no further than our own prejudices. The President is taking the right stand here. He needs to do more. This is the perfect opportunity for him to gain political capital by chastising Congress for not acting on port security (though he has been passive on the issue as well) and proposing strict new measures to make sure that the American people are not vulnerable to a real terrorist threat—whether our ports are administered by Arabs or anyone else.