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By Russ Smith | Posted 3/8/2006

Last week in this space, I singled out Mayor Martin O’Malley for his opportunistic grandstanding about the Dubai Ports World transaction, and then implied that with the 45-day “cooling off” period for congressional review the storm would pass and the United Arab Emirates company would join China (among other countries) in managing a number of U.S. ports.

Ahem, scratch that.

O’Malley, like scores of Democratic candidates, is still guilty of using inflammatory rhetoric to attract voters in his gubernatorial campaign—his Feb. 27 comments to the City Council comparing critics of his disputed crime statistics to the Swift Boat vets who pilloried Sen. John Kerry in 2004 is just another example—but as of this writing, the Dubai Ports deal seems comatose. Why Americans, as demonstrated by at least five major polls released last week, are frightened out of their wits by an innocuous international business takeover is beyond this writer, but that’s the political climate President Bush faces right now, and it’s a defining moment for his administration.

The hypocrisy demonstrated by Democrats on this issue is indeed ugly—no one peeped when President Clinton, near the end of his tenure, sold $8 billion worth of F-16s and other weapons to the UAE—but the party, adrift for years, is looking for any way to recapture Congress. This out-of-nowhere controversy is a gift that must keep Kerry awake at nights.

What bothers me more, as a proponent of free trade, broad immigration laws, and the reality of an economically global world, is that Republicans are abandoning their principles for political gain, even if it’s not in the best interest of the country. There is plenty to disagree with Bush about—his Medicare fiasco of 2003, obscene domestic spending, abandoning a firm stance on school vouchers, and the failure to articulate the necessity of Social Security reform—but on the Dubai Ports deal he’s correct, and one hopes that, should Congress pass a bill disallowing the company to manage six U.S. ports, he’ll keep his promise and veto it, even if it’s clear that first veto will be overridden.

Right now, I’m probably in the minority, but if Bush caves in to political pressure—like his father did in 1990 when he reversed his pledge not to raise taxes—he’ll lose an enormous amount of my respect. It’s possible that the Dubai Ports tornado will resonate right up until the midterm elections and perhaps even cause the GOP to lose control of the House, or even the Senate. At some point, Bush has to stand firm and exercise a veto; and if that results in a Democratic Congress, which could conceivably impeach him in 2007, that’s the kind of politics he shouldn’t shy away from.

The growing isolationist views in the United States are troubling: Even as Bush returns from a significant summit in India, properly allying with one of the 21st century’s economic superpowers (along with the U.S. and China), he’s betrayed by members of his own party. Last Thursday, on Capitol Hill, Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter of California said, in reference to Dubai, “We should require critical U.S. infrastructure to remain in U.S. hands. . . . To those who say my views smack of protectionism, I say: America is worth protecting.”

Even National Review, a publication that showcases reliable conservative essays, has been cowed by the negative perceptions of Dubai Ports in the past week. An editorial released on March 3 read, in part, “Although many of our friends have sincere doubts about the deal, we have yet to hear a compelling argument against it. So it is with regret that we say the deal should be jettisoned. That seems to be where the trajectory of this controversy is headed anyway, and the sooner it happens the less painful it will be for the administration.”

The editorial justifies this abandonment of principle on the pragmatic grounds that Bush’s “dwindling political capital” is such a problem that he must “prioritize” his battles. This sort of retreat is exactly the reverse of what the president should do: If he backs down on Dubai Ports, what’s next? An Al Gore-like conference with Hamas to iron out differences?

In contrast, the liberal Los Angeles Times ran an editorial March 4 that spelled out in clear terms the perils of “paranoia” in Washington. The paper, which states the “port saga” is “more about politics than security,” cautions that the dismaying embrace of protectionism “run[s] the risk of derailing the U.S. economy and further alienating the rest of the world.”

The only comic twist in the Dubai Ports struggle is the heartburn Sen. Hillary Clinton, who has emerged as a leading advocate for spurning foreign-owned companies at U.S. ports, has suffered because her husband has been the recipient of such largess from the UAE government. Not only did the former president do business with the nation during his two White House terms, but since then has been the recipient of six-figure speaking fees there and the beneficiary of large contributions to his presidential library. Not surprisingly, Mr. Clinton advised Dubai Ports officials on how to proceed with the ports deal, as his wife was denouncing it.

How New York’s junior senator, cruising to re-election this year and the prohibitive favorite for her party’s presidential nomination in three years, harnesses her larger-than-life (especially his mouth) husband is anybody’s guess, but it’s a serious problem that Sen. John McCain and his advisers must be relishing right now.

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