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Seek real port security.

Byline: The Register-Guard

Some members of Congress must think the United Arab Emirates is about to take over the U.S. Coast Guard. Otherwise, only political opportunism could explain lawmakers' alarm over the pending sale of terminal operations at six major U.S. ports to a Dubai-based company owned by the Persian Gulf sheikdom.

There are reasons to be alarmed by the deal, but none of them concerns port security, which is and will remain the responsibility of the U.S. Coast Guard and Customs Service.

The $6.8 billion sale, to be completed on March 2, will give Dubai Ports World control over seaports in Baltimore, Miami, New Jersey, New Orleans, New York and Philadelphia. These six ports handle about a quarter of the United States' maritime trade.

It's disturbing that these keystones of the nation's commercial infrastructure would end up in foreign hands. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, House Speaker Dennis Hastert and a bipartisan group of lawmakers ranging from Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., to Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., are objecting, and may introduce legislation to stop or delay the transaction.

If foreign ownership of port operations is the concern, however, that ship sailed long ago. The seller is not an American company but a Lon- don-based firm, Peninsular & Oriental Steam. Companies in Singapore, Denmark and Japan own port operations in the United States, including terminals in Los Angeles, Oakland and Seattle.

The opponents' real concern is not foreign ownership, but Middle Eastern ownership. Critics point out that the UAE was home to two of the Sept. 11 hijackers, that al-Qaeda has conducted financial transactions in Dubai and that A.E. Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, used Dubai warehouses when he sold nuclear equipment to Iran and Libya.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, President Bush was appropriately blunt in his response to these criti- cisms: "I want those who are questioning it to step up and explain why all of a sudden a Middle Eastern company is held to a different standard than a ... British company."

Indeed, Great Britain is also home to jihadist terrorists. There was no UAE complicity in the Sept. 11 attacks. The UAE's wide-open commercial culture, similar to what the United States hopes to incubate throughout the Middle East, makes activities such as al-Qaeda's and Khan's harder to track, but the sheikdom has cooperated in major anti-terror actions and provides vital landing rights to the U.S. Navy.

If Congress were truly concerned about Middle Eastern investments, it would act to reduce the $136 billion a year the United States spends on oil imports, much of which flows to the Persian Gulf. Those dollars have to be recycled somehow; the port sale is a byproduct of dependency on imported oil.

More broadly, the United States seeks to integrate Middle Eastern nations into the global economy, giving them an interest in preventing such disruptions as boycotts, wars or terrorist attacks. Blocking a major commercial transaction would impede that effort.

The congressional critics are right to be worried about port security. They should demand better screening and tracking of cargo entering U.S. ports - which would require giving more resources to the Coast Guard and Customs Service.

But that would cost money, so instead they're indulging in what sounds discouragingly like election-year politics. President Bush should stand his ground, and then challenge lawmakers to take real steps to protect the nation's ports.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Editorials; Stopping the UAE deal won't help
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Geographic Code:7UNIT
Date:Feb 23, 2006
Words:570
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