Friday, February 24, 2006

Shocked By The Response?

Paul Krugman and Tom Friedman both point out the ironic side of the Dubai port management story in the New York Times today. The Bush Administration has spent the last four years playing the fear/security card, finding terrorists under every rock. And now there is surprise at the reaction accorded their plan to allow Dubai Ports World to take over management of most the country's biggest ports -- ports that are well known to be inadequately secured?

The storm of protest over the planned takeover of some U.S. port operations by Dubai Ports World doesn't make sense viewed in isolation. The Bush administration clearly made no serious effort to ensure that the deal didn't endanger national security. But that's nothing new — the administration has spent the past four and a half years refusing to do anything serious about protecting the nation's ports.

So why did this latest case of sloppiness and indifference finally catch the public's attention? Because this time the administration has become a victim of its own campaign of fearmongering and insinuation.

Let's go back to the beginning. At 2:40 p.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, Donald Rumsfeld gave military commanders their marching orders. "Judge whether good enough hit S. H. [Saddam Hussein] @ same time — not only UBL [Osama bin Laden]," read an aide's handwritten notes about his instructions. The notes were recently released after a Freedom of Information Act request. "Hard to get a good case," the notes acknowledge. Nonetheless, they say: "Sweep it all up. Things related and not."

So it literally began on Day 1. When terrorists attacked the United States, the Bush administration immediately looked for ways it could exploit the atrocity to pursue unrelated goals — especially, but not exclusively, a war with Iraq.

But to exploit the atrocity, President Bush had to do two things. First, he had to create a climate of fear: Al Qaeda, a real but limited threat, metamorphosed into a vast, imaginary axis of evil threatening America. Second, he had to blur the distinctions between nasty people who actually attacked us and nasty people who didn't.

The administration successfully linked Iraq and 9/11 in public perceptions through a campaign of constant insinuation and occasional outright lies. In the process, it also created a state of mind in which all Arabs were lumped together in the camp of evildoers. Osama, Saddam — what's the difference?

Now comes the ports deal. Mr. Bush assures us that "people don't need to worry about security." But after all those declarations that we're engaged in a global war on terrorism, after all the terror alerts declared whenever the national political debate seemed to be shifting to questions of cronyism, corruption and incompetence, the administration can't suddenly change its theme song to "Don't Worry, Be Happy."

Since 9/11, whenever the Bush team has found itself in political trouble, it has played the national security card against Democrats. It has worked so well that Karl Rove, in a recent speech to the Republican National Committee, made it a campaign theme for 2006.

He said America today faces "a ruthless enemy" and therefore needs "a commander in chief and a Congress who understand the nature of the threat and the gravity of the moment America finds itself in. President Bush and the Republican Party do. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for many Democrats."

Mr. Rove added: "Republicans have a post-9/11 worldview, and many Democrats have a pre-9/11 worldview. That doesn't make them unpatriotic — not at all. But it does make them wrong — deeply and profoundly and consistently wrong."

I particularly like the line "that doesn't make them unpatriotic," when that was exactly the political slur Mr. Rove was trying to implant.

So I understand why Democrats were eager to turn the soft-on-terrorism card back on President Bush when it was revealed that P&O, the navigation company based in London — which has been managing the ports of New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, New Orleans, Miami and Philadelphia — had been bought by Dubai Ports World, a company owned by the Dubai monarchy in the United Arab Emirates, an Arab Gulf state, and that the Bush team had approved the Dubai takeover of the U.S. port operations.

I also understand why many Republicans are now running away from the administration. They know that if they don't distance themselves from Mr. Bush, some Democrats are going to play this very evocative, very visual "giving away our ports to the Arabs" card against them in the coming elections. Yes, you reap what you sow.


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