Borders Policy and “Portgate”

February 24, 2006

President Bush is in trouble with much of his base for approving the sale of a British shipping firm that runs commercial container operations at six major U.S. ports to a United Arab Emirates (UAE) company. I believe the main reason he is under fire from the right is that he has a nagging credibility problem concerning his inscrutable immigration policy.

To be sure, Bush is under fire from the left as well, but their opposition has little to do with national security concerns and everything to do with partisan politics.

Most conservatives, I think, see Bush as enormously committed to America’s national security and the Global War on Terror (GWOT). But many find themselves scratching their heads over his perceived “open borders” policy.

Why, they wonder, is he so genuinely clear-sighted about the evil of terrorists and the global threat they pose to the point of fashioning his legacy-making foreign policy doctrine around an unprecedented preemption strategy, yet seemingly oblivious to the potential threat in our back, front and side yards? Why the disconnect?

Actually, to call it a disconnect is a major understatement. It’s more like a gargantuan gap in an otherwise fully coherent policy. If his driving ambition is to make America safer from our terrorist enemies, why does he risk sabotaging that objective by making us more vulnerable right at home?

Frankly, I’m not sure the president has a blind spot on immigration, because I’m not sure I even understand what his policy is. But if in fact his borders policy can be reconciled with his general policy against terrorists, he hasn’t yet made that case to the American people, much less to his base.

It is not just fringe groups who take umbrage at the president calling Minutemen border patrol groups “vigilantes.” A large segment of conservatives remain mystified about the president’s border policy and consider it the Achilles’ Heel in his GWOT policy.

I submit that if the president had previously convinced his base that his immigration policy augmented, instead of undermined, his campaign against the enemy, he would be experiencing far less fallout over the ports issue.

Of course, it doesn’t help matters that the president reportedly wasn’t apprised of the proposed transfer of the ports until after it had been approved by his staff. But since he has failed to persuade his political allies on the border issue, many of them are not willing to trust him implicitly on an analogous issue that strikes them, instinctively, as unnecessarily risky. If they fear he’s lax about foreign people entering our borders illegally, couldn’t he be equally so concerning foreign goods entering through the ports?

In my estimation, the case against the transfer is by no means a slam-dunk. There are valid points on both sides of the issue, and many conservative columnists have already corrected some of the misinformation out there fueling opposition to the sale.

Without re-itemizing all those points, let’s just remember, in summary, that following the sale, the U.S. government will still be in charge of security at these six ports. And, the UAE has been an important ally in the GWOT. Unless and until we’re prepared to declare that we’re currently engaged in a full-blown war between civilizations, we better think twice before we summarily reject alliances with certain Arab and Muslim states.

On the other hand, there are legitimate reasons to be skeptical of this deal and to urge that we err on the side of caution in these dangerous times. It is not just xenophobes and bigots who recognize that all of the Sept. 11 hijackers were Muslims, two of which came from the UAE, that Palestinian Muslims danced in the street upon the news of the murders, that terrorist activities in Iraq and elsewhere around the world are overwhelmingly committed by Muslims, and that we see so little condemnation from “moderate” Muslims of suicide bombings and other atrocities repeatedly perpetrated by Islamic terrorists.

And, as others have noted, if Dubai Ports World begins to operate these ports, there might be a greater likelihood that sensitive information about our security operations, especially weaknesses in it, will fall into the hands of our enemies.

I’m not yet completely convinced we should oppose this transfer for security reasons, but I’m confident it raises sufficient red flags that we ought to take more time to scrutinize before finally deciding.

I also believe President Bush should view this incident as a wake-up call alerting him that he needs to better explain, if possible, how his immigration policy coheres with his overall strategy on the war on terror.

That he faces implacable opposition from the incorrigible left is a given, but he owes his supporters and ideological allies substantial clarification on this issue, which should go a long way toward preventing future problems like the one we’re witnessing over the ports.