Byline: Robert Samuelson
The idea of letting an Arab-owned company, Dubai Ports World, run container terminals at five U.S. ports struck many Americans as an absurdity. Why not just turn control directly over to Al Qaeda? In late February, a CBS News poll found that 70 percent of respondents were against the deal and only 21 percent in favor. The
company's withdrawal last week can be seen as a triumph of public opinion. Or it can be acknowledged for what it is: a major defeat for the United States, driven by self-indulgent politicians of both parties who enthusiastically fanned public fears.
Leadership in a democratic society requires a willingness and ability to challenge and change public opinion when it is based on misinformation, no information, prejudice or stupidity--as it was in this case. There never was a genuine security problem. The Dubai company wouldn't have "taken over" the U.S. ports. It simply would have run some terminals. Cargo would still have been handled by American, unionized longshoremen. The Coast Guard and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency would still have been responsible for port security.
To be sure, the 9 million or so containers arriving annually in the United States do pose security threats. In congressional testimony, Stephen Flynn of the Council on Foreign Relations outlined one danger: a truck driver, sympathetic to Al Qaeda, picks up a container of sneakers in Indonesia; on the way to the port, he diverts the trucks so terrorists can load the container with a "dirty" nuclear device; the container is shipped to Chicago, where it's detonated. Flynn urged more worldwide electronic and radiation scanning of containers at ports of departure. He estimated that screening would require about a $20 fee per container.
"We need to know what's in the box more than we need to know who is moving them around a container yard," Flynn testified. Both Flynn and James Jay Carafano of the Heritage Foundation testified that Congress had underfunded the Coast Guard. No matter. It was a free-for-all on Capitol Hill. Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles Schumer of New York led the fearmongering. Republicans joined the chorus, some frightened of being cast as "soft" on terrorism. In a typically brave comment, House Speaker Dennis Hastert said: "We want to protect the American people."
As political theater, the posturing might be harmless. But all the grandstanding--precisely because the criticisms were overblown--damages American interests. …