Port Security Frenzy: Real Concern or Real Grandstanding?

by Stuart Rothenberg February 27, 2006 · 11:05 PM EST

While Democrats and Republicans vent their anger over the Bush Administration’s decision to allow a United Arab Emirates-based company from taking “control” of America’s east coast ports (from a British company), I have a question: Exactly what responsibility and authority does this UAE company have? Specifically, how is U.S. security weakened?

I don’t know, and I bet 99.5% of the people discussing the “threat” don’t know. As a matter of fact, I’ll bet most of us have no idea what managing a port entails.

But that hasn’t stopped people from ranting about the Administration’s decision to approve the British-UAE deal.

CNN political commentators Donna Brazile (on the left) and Bill Bennett (on the right) agreed that it is a terrible thing. Pennsylvania Representative Bill Shuster (R) wrote a letter to the President expressing concern about the deal. Representative Max Burns (R-Ga.) and Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) are worried. Both House Homeland Security Committee chairman Peter King (R-NY) and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman Chuck Schumer (D-NY) are demanding the President reverse his decision. I guess this is the bipartisanship we’ve all been longing for, huh?

Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley (D), who just coincidentally happens to be running for governor, went absolutely bonkers over the deal.

“I am calling upon President Bush to reverse the outrageous, the reckless, and the irresponsible decision to turn over American ports to foreign governments,” said the Mayor, who didn’t exactly sound like a model of thoughtfulness and reason.

Talking of “turning over” American ports to a foreign company that apparently is controlled by a foreign (Middle Eastern) government raises the specter of terrorists flowing through the ports of New York, Baltimore and Miami. But with the Department of Homeland Security, the Bureau of Customs and the Department of Immigration and Naturalization still firmly in U.S. control, it’s far from clear how that sale threatens U.S. security or enables terrorists to gain access to the U.S.

What we have here is a small dose of real concern and a huge amount of grandstanding by legislators, Republican and Democratic alike.

Democrats smell an opportunity to appear tougher than the President on national defense and homeland security, enhancing their generally weaker credentials on fighting the war against terror.

Republican legislators realize that they cannot allow Democrats to seize the one issue that the GOP has had an advantage on since September 11, 2001. And GOP members of the House and Senate even get an issue on which they can “stand up to” Bush, a hard-to-pass-up opportunity since the President’s job ratings remain weak.

The White House probably does deserve blame – blame for not seeing that his decision could easily be demagogued and turned into a political issue. Now, fairly or unfairly, the President is on the defensive and some in the media have started to pile on, as did CNN’s Jack Cafferty, who never allows reason or logic to interfere with his analysis.

The President does not have to change his decision if he believes it to be correct. But he needs to make the case that the new company will not be in a position to aid terrorists, and that it will continue policies and procedures (both involving personnel and operations) to keep America’s ports safe, and to enhance that safety and security.

Still, the President is taking a political hit, and given his current standing, it’s a hit that he cannot afford.