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Storm in a Port

By Russ Smith | Posted 3/1/2006

Amid the torrent of demagoguery, election-year posturing, and misinformation over the sale of the British-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co. to Dubai Ports World, the xenophobic comments of Mayor Martin O’Malley have not received the media attention that Maryland’s voters deserve. O’Malley, no stranger to impulsive rhetoric, outdid himself last week when protesting the United Arab Emirates-owned firm taking over the management of six U.S. ports, including Baltimore’s.

It’s unlikely that O’Malley was purposely paying tribute to Mimi DiPietro—the late East Baltimore city councilman whose fractured English endeared him to constituents and columnists alike—but when he spoke to reporters about the port deal that’s the first person I thought of. The crucial difference is that O’Malley is running for governor, not worrying about potholes in Highlandtown.

As reported in the Feb. 21 Sun, O’Malley commented on President Bush’s support of the ports transaction: “Not so long as I’m mayor and not so long as I have breath in my body. . . . We are not going to turn over the port of Baltimore to a foreign government. It’s not going to happen.” Bush’s action, according to O’Malley, was “outrageous,” “reckless,” and “irresponsible.”

Not to be a stickler about facts, but I think it’s “outrageous” that O’Malley either doesn’t know or want to acknowledge that Britain isn’t part of the United States or that P&O held the contract to run Baltimore’s port for the last seven years. On O’Malley’s campaign web site, there’s a call for voters to sign the petition he drafted that urges Bush to reverse course, because “Handing over the Port of Baltimore to a company owned by any foreign government puts American lives at risk.”

Right now it’s unclear whether (mostly) opportunistic politicians will be able to kill the deal, but even if that happens it’s inevitable that P&O will sell its rights to U.S. ports to another foreign company. Will O’Malley stop breathing then? Will he chain himself to a fence at a loading dock? It’d be quite a spectacle and immensely entertaining.

Not incidentally, Dubai Ports will also take over management of ports in 18 other countries—according to the Feb. 25 New York Times—including Canada, Belgium, France, Britain, and India. None of those governments has made an issue of the sale, even though Western European countries are just as likely to be victimized by terrorist attacks. You also have to wonder whether O’Malley is aware that the majority of U.S. ports are already run by foreign companies, including those from Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, and China.

In fairness, O’Malley was just one voice in a bipartisan attack on Dubai Ports World, including his gubernatorial competitors Robert Ehrlich and Doug Duncan, as well as Republican senators Lindsey Graham and Bill Frist, and Democrats such as Jon Corzine, Chuck Schumer, and Hillary Clinton.

And once again the Bush administration handled a political firestorm artlessly, failing to educate (or inform) elected officials—especially those seeking re-election—about the turnover. It doesn’t matter that P&O accepted Dubai’s offer last month: Until politicians realized they could exploit the sale, it was just another global transaction, hardly worthy of examination to men and women who often don’t even read the congressional bills they’re voting on.

Late last week, Bush vehemently promised to veto legislation scuttling the sale—which would be refreshing, since he hasn’t vetoed a single bill yet, even though many have merited that action—and Dubai Ports agreed to temporarily postpone consummation of the deal. This is bound to defuse, at least from the Republican side, the controversy, as the hysteria dies down.

Already, Ehrlich, who was among the first governors to voice his displeasure at the “troubling” news and said he might side with those attempting to reverse the deal, has toned down his comments. The Sun reported Feb. 24 that Ehrlich wouldn’t co-sign O’Malley’s letter of protest to Bush, presumably authorizing his press secretary to say, O’Malley’s letter is “a political document, it would be dangerous to sign a letter from someone who doesn’t understand the issue.”

Any time the New York Times and New York Post agree on a major issue, it’s clear that these are confusing days. And at the Times, two liberal op-ed columnists, Maureen Dowd and Thomas Friedman, are in disagreement about the UAE takeover. Dowd, writing on Feb. 22, sounded like O’Malley: “Maybe it’s corporate racial profiling, but I don’t want foreign companies, particularly ones with links to 9/11 [two of the hijackers were from the UAE], running American ports.”

The more rational Friedman (Feb. 24), who has “zero sympathy” for Bush’s “political mess,” said: “On the pure merits of this case, the president is right. The port deal should go ahead. . . . If there were a real security issue here, I’d join the critics. But the security argument is bogus and, I would add, borderline racist.”

Does that mean, according to Friedman, that Martin O’Malley is “borderline racist”? I’m not sure about that, but judging by his ballast the past week, O’Malley is certainly “borderline” hysterical, not a winning quality for a man who wants to govern this state.

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