Who Dares to Question The Dubai Port Deal?

How fortunate that the opinion pages of our mightiest newspapers are open to diverse viewpoints. We would otherwise miss the opportunity to learn from liberal, conservative and centrist pundits alike that opponents of the Dubai ports deal—which now include about 70 percent of the American public—must be crazed, racist and xenophobic.

One original thinker after another insists that there can be no honest criticism of the Dubai deal. They tell us that every critic, no matter how measured, is a protectionist bigot; and that every argument, no matter how rational, is a calumny against Arabs and Muslims. There is a strange whiff of demagogy in these screeds.

In The New York Times, David Brooks laments America’s sudden inundation by “a xenophobic tsunami.” That newspaper’s Thomas L. Friedman warns us against “global ethnic profiling.” And Nicholas Kristof huffily declares in its pages that “this fuss about ports is really about Arabs.” Mr. Brooks proclaims that any concern about potential security problems is “completely bogus,” while Mr. Friedman describes such concerns as not only “bogus” but “borderline racist.” Mr. Kristof refers slyly to “the arguments of those who believe we should discriminate against Arabs.”

The same ugly insinuations can also be found in The Washington Post, parroted under the bylines of Richard Cohen and David Ignatius. Mr. Ignatius regards dissent from the Dubai deal as simply “racist,” while Mr. Cohen prefers to squawk “xenophobic.”

Such is the conventional mainstream wisdom, which blesses all trade as “free trade” and venerates corporate globalization as the one truth faith. To question those assumptions, even in the name of national security, is considered a sign of benighted partisanship, economic ignorance or worse.

Now all these literary worthies have suddenly acquired profound and unimpeachable knowledge about our ports. With breathtaking arrogance, they claim to know what will make us safe and what might endanger us. According to Mr. Friedman, we need not worry about the takeover of several ports by the government of Dubai, because “the U.S. Coast Guard still controls all aspects of port security, entry and exits; the U.S. Customs Service is still in charge of inspecting the containers, and U.S. longshoremen still handle the cargos.” According to Mr. Brooks, “nearly every expert who knows something about port security” agrees that there is no reason for worry.

These pundits don’t condescend to engage in serious debate. They gush over Dubai’s luxury hotels and skyscrapers, without mentioning the utter absence of democracy, transparency and human rights. They praise the United Arab Emirates for behaving like an ally against Al Qaeda, while ignoring its recent connections with the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. They seem to think that if any foreign firm is allowed to operate an American port, then a company that is wholly owned by a foreign dictatorship must be treated the same way.

If none of that makes sense to you, then you’re obviously a racist, bigoted, xenophobic protectionist. Remember that for most if not all critics of the Dubai Ports World takeover, the most troubling issue is the Bush administration’s casual approach to vetting the deal. The more we learn about this process, the less confidence we have in it. To doubt the competence of this government is neither xenophobic nor racist.

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., an interagency body overseen by the Treasury Department, appears to have performed poorly in examining the Dubai deal. Sadly, that is unsurprising, as the Government Accountability Office pointed out last fall. Like the conventional minds of the newspaper world, Treasury officials tend to value “free trade” above all other considerations, including national security. That is why the G.A.O. has been urging tighter and tougher methods for evaluating foreign investment in critical infrastructure and defense sectors.

As for expertise, the collected knowledge of the nation’s newspaper columnists on this subject is considerably less than that of the actual experts who have questioned the deal.

The pundits certainly know less about port security than Clark Kent Ervin, the former inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, who currently directs the Homeland Security Initiative for the Aspen Institute, an impeccably moderate and nonpartisan research center. Mr. Ervin recently confessed his doubts on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times (where certain columnists might have read him while perusing their own work with the usual self-satisfaction).

The pundits also know considerably less than Joseph King, the former Customs Service special agent in charge of counterterrorism for that agency until 2003. They know less than the Coast Guard officers who turn out to have warned the Committee on Foreign Investment of the “intelligence gap” in the Dubai deal after examining classified information.

In other words, those who have exercised actual responsibility for ensuring the security of our ports believe there is ample reason for concern over Dubai. So let the columnists hiss and fulminate—and let the investigation proceed, with due caution.