Incompetence in Action

This is why the Bush Administration is the worst presidential administration in 150 years: It spends five years trying to convince Americans that swarthy Muslims represent enough of a threat to US safety and security that the Administration is required to expectorate all over the Bill of Rights in order to keep us safe from them — and then has the gall to act all surprised and affronted when Americans panic at the thought of giving swarthy Muslims control of several of the country’s busiest ports, including the ones from which the World Trade Center could be seen collapsing.

Mind you, this has nothing to do with whether letting this particular company based in the United Arab Emirates have control of several major ports is actually a good idea. I honestly don’t know (and I’m willing to bet you don’t really know, either). It’s also not about whether swarthy Muslims, in general, deserve to be irrationally feared (as a class they don’t, any more than pasty-white Christians do). It has to do with how Bush’s people could be so tone-deaf as not to see how this particular deal could be (to use a singularly inappropriate cliche) a political landmine. Didn’t anyone in the Executive Branch look up from the Kool-Aid long enough to say “Hey, haven’t we been telling people Arabs are, like, bad? Is it possible handing the ports over to an Arab company might not play well”? At the very least, someone should have, you know, briefed the president about the deal ahead of time so he wouldn’t have learned about it in the newspapers like the rest of us slobs. Then perhaps he could have prepared for the inevitable backlash brought on by his administration’s own messaging.

Simple fact: You can’t spend years demonizing a group of people in words and in deeds and expect people you’ve been scaring not to react badly when suddenly it seems like you’re in bed with the demons and getting slipped their devilish meat. I fully grant the UAE is not Iraq or Iran, but with no disrespect toward the mass of US citizens, the vast majority of us can’t find the UAE on a map and even if we could, through ignorance and design we’ve lumped “Arabs” into a massive, scary category so indiscriminate in its composition that if one were to point out to most Americans that Iranians aren’t actually Arab at all, they’d look at you with blank incomprehension and wonder what your point is. They’re all swarthy Moooslims! They can’t be trusted! This is not a formulation the Bush folks have gone out of their way to correct, as it has served their purposes well enough up to this point.

But now suddenly it doesn’t, and Bush is getting roughly the same reaction as FDR might have gotten if he allowed the Port of Los Angeles to be sold to a company based in Okinawa and then tried to argue that the Okinawans weren’t really Japanese. Mind you, this is nowhere near a perfect analogy, but it serves well enough to make the point: Americans are being told to trust the same people most of us thought we were at war with, by the president who took us to war with them. It doesn’t help at all that what most Americans do know of the UAE is that some of the 9/11 terrorists were from there; it accentuates the confusion.

There’s no way this port deal ends well for the Bush Administration. This is particularly true because Bush himself has dug in his heels and has declared that he’s willing to veto any legislation that undoes the sale — his first veto in his entire presidency, mind you, and if you think the president using his veto power to help Arabs is going to play well with his base, you’re just not paying attention. So either the deal goes through, in which case Bush is the guy who gave our ports to Arabs, which is red meat for his opponents. Or it gets stuffed, in which case the Bush Administration starts its lame duck era early, and trust me, as soon as that happens, the knives are going to come out.

Again: How could the Bush people not see this coming? The fact that they didn’t (or did but managed to convince themselves it wouldn’t be a big deal) is among many other reasons why this is such a horrible presidency: It’s not smart enough to see the consequences of its own actions, even when those consequences are laid out like Tinkertoys directly in front of them.

The only possible good to come out of this would be that this could be the straw the breaks the camel’s back, and actual conservatives will wake up from the fugue state they’ve been in for the last six years, realize that Bush and his penny-ante cult of personality management style has essentially tubed their revolution, and then try to salvage what they can — which hopefully will mean that between them and the Democrats there might be a majority vote for bringing back that whole crazy “checks and balances” thing that the Bush Administration wishes to suggest doesn’t actually apply to it. I know it’s a lot to ask for. But one may hope.

Back to whether Dubai Ports World should be able to run these ports: Got me. I’m not afraid to say I’m not qualified to have an opinion on the matter — everything above is about appearances, and why they are of consequence. I will say this: If the deal does go through, Bush better hope to God that no terror attack ever routes in any way through any port Dubai Ports World operates. Because if one does, there is not a stopwatch in the world fast enough to time how quickly he will find himself impeached. And impeachment would be the absolute least of his problems.

36 thoughts on “Incompetence in Action

  1. They were going to hire Osama bin Laden to fly Air Force One, but he was committed to a Sudanese assassination that week.

  2. I think Bush was going to pardon Saddam to let him run the port but, the Taliban got together and created a company, with US funds, so they can control the port.

  3. From 1984

    The speech had been proceeding for perhaps twenty minutes when a messenger hurried on to the platform and a scrap of paper was slipped into the speaker’s hand. He unrolled and read it without pausing in his speech. Nothing altered in his voice or manner, or in the content of what he was saying, but suddenly the names were different. Without words said, a wave of understanding rippled through the crowd. Oceania was at war with Eastasia! The next moment there was a tremendous commotion. The banners and posters with which the square was decorated were all wrong! Quite half of them had the wrong faces on them. It was sabotage! The agents of Goldstein had been at work! There was a riotous interlude while posters were ripped from the walls, banners torn to shreds and trampled underfoot. The Spies performed prodigies of activity in clambering over the rooftops and cutting the streamers that fluttered from the chimneys. But within two or three minutes it was all over. The orator, still gripping the neck of the microphone, his shoulders hunched forward, his free hand clawing at the air, had gone straight on with his speech. One minute more, and the feral roars of rage were again bursting from the crowd. The Hate continued exactly as before, except that the target had been changed.

  4. Since my last post on the Whatever I have actually moved to Dubai. I encourage you to learn more about it. Outside the US, Dubai is coming to be seen as the new center of the universe in much the same way that San Fran was during the dot com boom or NYC was in the go-go 80s.

    You don’t hear much about it in the US (yet) because of the now ingrained American auto-flinch to all things from the Middle East. As you mention, John, the leaders in the US have spent a lot of time and effort teaching Americans that Middle East = Bad.

    But elsewhere in the world Dubai is seen as the brave new frontier of the next wave of business and culture. There are amazing things going on here in terms of capitalism, construction, fashion and tourism. I think you will be pleasantly surprised.

  5. John said:
    “At the very least, someone should have, you know, briefed the president about the deal ahead of time so he wouldn’t have learned about it in the newspapers like the rest of us slobs.”

    Of course, we know this isn’t true, because by his own proud admission, W doesn’t (or can’t) read the papers.

  6. John — Your points on the Administration’s mismanagement of this are well placed. The sad thing is, from a policy perspective, the White House is actually right on this one. (That makes, what?, maybe seven items total in five years I can say that about.) DP World presents no threat. Everyone’s port operations are watched just as closely (or not) by the Department of Homeland Security. The container facilities in question have been operated by a foreign-headquartered company for ages without ill effects, and DP World (or its predecessor firms) has operated ports in Europe, Africa, and Asia for years — again without ill effects. The only other bidder for the port operations was a company owned by the government of Singapore. Et cetera.

    This is the sort of thing that Eisenhower would have finessed beautifully — in advance. Reagan would have blocked the deal (a mistake) but scored political points off of it (a win). And so on.

    I keep trying to come up with a simple, nonpartisan way of encapsulating the argument that, *regardless* of its grand policies or strategies, this Administration simply hasn’t shown itself competent to carry out public policy.

  7. Tim Walker:

    “I keep trying to come up with a simple, nonpartisan way of encapsulating the argument that, *regardless* of its grand policies or strategies, this Administration simply hasn’t shown itself competent to carry out public policy.”

    Exactly. This is why on the occasions that I *do* agree with Bush on a policy issue — and it does happen from time to time — I still cringe because no matter how good the idea, the adminstration will find a way to mess it up.

  8. Anyone who might think Bush is suddenly in bed with the Arabs hasn’t been paying attention – the entire Bush clan has ties to the Arab world going back decades.

    As much as I hate to agree with the Bush administration, I don’t see much in this deal to lose sleep over. Not to oversimplify it, but the only real change will be that the profits will go to Dubai instead of London – big yawn. Arabs already own nearly $1trillion of stock in American companies, yet nobody seems to be up in arms about that (except Michael Moore).

    I think this has been orchestrated to allow Republicans in Congress a chance to beat their chests on ‘national security’, and to distance themselves from Bush before the elections in November…

  9. I don’t know whether this deal’s good, bad, or indifferent. But when an untrustworthy administration that’s known for not doing its homework says, “Trust us, we did our homework,” further investigation is warranted.

    The surprising thing is that the administration–OK, Karl Rove–is rarely this politically tone deaf. Time for the White House staff to run to that little glass case on the wall and break out the “But Clinton did something even worse…” defense.

  10. This is an issue of national security, globalization and free trade. Having experience in chartering and bay operations most people do not realize that ports could be choke points of an economy. In the past, grain exports have been stopped or slowed down by longshoremen’s labor disputes. A lot of grain elevators in the Gulf and Pacific Northwest are owned/operated by Japanese companies. Oil exports/imports have also been compromised or rendered non-functional by natural disasters, oil spills and depot explosions. Most of the tonnage carrying vital goods worlwide are plying their trade under flag-of-convenience countries like Liberia and Panama. A port therefore could compromise manufacturing operations especially now that most companies rely on just-in-time inventory management. These are just the economic reasons.

    On a historical perspective, England demanded a port (Hong Kong) when China capitulated after the Opium Wars (Portugal got Macao). The U.S. demanded the same thing when Commodore Perry “visited” Japan. So a port is not just a port but a foothold in a country. China is currently running a port in Long Beach, CA and I doubt if the U.S. can interfere in what transits there unless they are patently illegal like drugs and firearms.

    The current deal involves mostly commercial ports in the Eastern seaboard and in the Gulf. A critical point is Beaumont, TX which handles a lot of the military materiel going to Iraq. Assuming DPW is only after the financial rewards of this deal, where do you think their loyalty and allegiance would lie? The host country or their owners or the highest bidder for their services?

  11. I have to say that I am very disappointed in this post. A first time visitor, I expected quite a bit more after enjoying your book.

    Do you really suppose that the Bush administration has spent the last four years trying “trying to convince Americans that swarthy Muslims represent … a threat to US safety and security”? If Bush has given a speech in which he’s offered blanket condemnations of “swarthy” people, or Arabs or Muslims then I guess I’ve missed it. Indeed, he’s bent over backwards with ludicrous paeans to the ‘religion of peace’ and has committed his entire legacy to the idea that the M.E. is just as ready for Democracy as any other region.

    Like I say: I expected more from you than the same old snarly insinuations of racism and the empty-headed attacks on strawmen of your own design.

    Don’t bother to reply here as I’m unlikely to return: I prefer venues where writers aren’t so comfortable in their own little bigotries.

  12. “Because if one does, there is not a stopwatch in the world fast enough to time how quickly he will find himself impeached.”

    You have a touchingly high degree of faith in the Republicans. I suspect they’d complain for a little while, then the complaints would get squelched in some kind of “deal” with the white house which “satisfies their concerns” without actually accomplishing anything except perhaps raising the deficit through a new load of pork.

  13. WildMonk writes: ” Indeed, he’s bent over backwards with ludicrous paeans to the ‘religion of peace’ and has committed his entire legacy to the idea that the M.E. is just as ready for Democracy as any other region.”

    And, yet, Bush insists that if all communications between Americans and people in the M.E. must be monitored.

    Lot of trust there.

  14. John H. writes: “Arabs already own nearly $1trillion of stock in American companies, yet nobody seems to be up in arms about that (except Michael Moore).”

    Owning stock is a far, far cry from making staffing decisions and other direct management control. Stockholders can apply pressure, but are often outvoted by other shareholders or ignored by the board of directors.

  15. Corina writes: “But elsewhere in the world Dubai is seen as the brave new frontier of the next wave of business and culture. There are amazing things going on here in terms of capitalism, construction, fashion and tourism. I think you will be pleasantly surprised.”

    The fact that Dubai is all that does not remove the significant potential for infiltration by terrorists or terrorist sympathizers. Some of the 9/11 hijackers came from a neighboring city state from the UAE.

    The official state position may be friendly, the average Dubai resident may be friendly, the official DPW policy may be friendly, but none of that precludes rogue elements from being active.

    For example, consider the “friendly” leadership of Pakistan, compared to the rogue elements in the government, such as the A.Q. Khan nuclear technology sales network.

    The point is, the official stances aren’t really worth much because you’re talking about lots of individuals, each with their own motivations and allegiances.

    How do Dubai’s neighbors feel about the things that are tolerated in Dubai? Might it not become a target of fundamentalists? Might they be attracted to the idea of discrediting and harming libertine Dubai by infiltrating Dubai-owned DPW and using DPW to facilitate an attack on the US?

  16. Seems to me there’s a guaranteed conservative argument for denying the sale: it’s not a free-market deal, because DPW is government-owned.

    The GOP could just insist on the port being sold to a corporation, not some muddled state-owned quasi-capitalist business.

  17. You could argue it, but I’d be unconvinced. He was certainly a bad president, though; arguably the worst of the 20th century.

    Jon H: In the future you may wish to consider compiling all your comments into one larger comment rather than five smaller ones; it appeals to my sense of comment thread neatness.

  18. Jon H writes:
    >

    Following this logic, the US should not cooperate with any government because the individuals within that country might be ‘rogue elements.’ And I suppose, no other country should cooperate with the US because it too is a country made up of ‘individuals’ with their own motivations and allegiances. Goodness! The US even has rogue elements…

    I’ll try to respond to your other questions as well.

    >
    Some of the other Emirates are working hard to catch up with what is going on in Dubai. Outside of the UAE, Oman and Saudi are liberalizing and look to be embracing the types of things that Dubai is having success with. Other neighboring countries, like Iran, are likely viewing Dubai more negatively.

    >
    Sure. But like the US, they have security measures in place and work hard to preserve their right to progress as the UAE shaiks see fit. But there is a difference between a potential target and successful strike. I’m sure you would not encourage the UAE to stop it’s progressive agenda just because some people in the world might not approve.

    >
    Sure, I would imagine this is a plan that could be considered by someone with a grudge against the US and Dubai. But I can also imagine that they could attempt a strike at the US or Dubai in a zillion others ways. I think the better question is ‘Does DPW have a better or worse chance of foiling an attempt by terrorists to use their company resources than the other existing port operating companies?’ You could argue that DPW has a better chance of success.

    If you will grant that the DPW is not inherently unstable or ‘bad’ and that they are actually competent business people, it seems a stretch to say that they are any riskier than any other non-US owned company running ports.

    If you are just against any non-US company getting involved in US ports, it would be easier for you to justify your argument. But when you start saying it is OK for the Brits to run our ports but not the Arabs, it looks funny. Just curious, how do you feel about the Chinese companies that run other US ports?

  19. I think Bush’s concern is the risk of a falling dollar. Think about it: If Arabs can’t freely buy US assets with all those dollars they receive in exchange for oil then, in their eyes, dollars are worthless. They may as well sell their oil to the Chinese.

    Now, if the dollar drops too far, then the US simply won’t be able to afford its current level of imports. Then what? Ownership of a port becomes moot, since nothing much will be passing through it anyway.

  20. [quote]Didn’t anyone in the Executive Branch look up from the Kool-Aid long enough to say “Hey, haven’t we been telling people Arabs are, like, bad?[/quote]
    And when, exactly, have they said that Arabs are, like, bad, John? I agree that this particular issue handled was handled with impressive ineptitude. But let’s get to this idea that the administration has been telling us that Arabs are bad. That would be far more inept, and so far as I can tell, they haven’t done it. Bush has been careful to say, over and over, that Muslims aren’t bad, that Islam is a wonderful religion, and that Al Qaeda and its various associate organizations represent a horrid perversion of it. It actually seems that the Bushies rather like Arabs, considering that they decided to attempt to create the first real Middle Eastern democracy (in which an extraordinarily high percentage of Iraqis have already participated). If W. thought Arabs were inherently bad, I rather think he might have installed a friendly dictator and called it a day. Instead, he actually broke from standard realpolitik and gambled that Arabs actually might like to govern themselves and could actually, possibly, be trusted to run their own nation. We’ll see how that works out.

    That’s not to say that he’s a great president; I couldn’t bring myself to vote for the guy. Nor to say that threatening his first veto on this issue is a good move (although the UAE is about as America-friendly a Middle Eastern government as there is). But it does help in political discourse to accuse one’s opponents of things that they are, like, guilty of. Or do you think that the idiotic rhetoric levied against Clinton in the 90’s was legitimate as well, because it really [i]felt[/i] true?

  21. Looking forward to reading your book, and your comments about how political differences should be overlooked in this case are well taken.

    Now to your post. Commenters who suggest that the Bush Presidency is arguably the worst of the 21st century are so obviously partisan and hysterical, it’s hardly worth comment. It’s also arguably the best given the circumstances of being handed a recession economy from day one and a major terrorist attack shortly after.

    And as an aside, I don’t think impeachment is a possibility regardless of the outcome of the port deal with UAE. Impeachment requires a problem on the order of malfeasance, and that would be nearly impossible to make a case for as it obviously is more a political mistake than anything.

    The ports deal is without the lamest thing the Bush administration has done since the Harriet Miers fiasco, but neither of them are disasters in themselves. They are both mainly PR disasters, miscalculations of people’s perceptions. The policy analysts may have done their jobs, but the political analysts failed.

  22. Looking forward to reading your book, and your comments about how political differences should be overlooked in this case are well taken.

    Now to your post. Commenters who suggest that the Bush Presidency is arguably the worst of the 21st century are so obviously partisan and hysterical, it’s hardly worth comment. It’s also arguably the best given the circumstances of being handed a recession economy from day one and a major terrorist attack shortly after.

    And as an aside, I don’t think impeachment is a possibility regardless of the outcome of the port deal with UAE. Impeachment requires a problem on the order of malfeasance, and that would be nearly impossible to make a case for as it obviously is more a political mistake than anything.

    The ports deal is without the lamest thing the Bush administration has done since the Harriet Miers fiasco, but neither of them are disasters in themselves. They are both mainly PR disasters, miscalculations of people’s perceptions. The policy analysts may have done their jobs, but the political analysts failed.

  23. Jeff:

    “Commenters who suggest that the Bush Presidency is arguably the worst of the 21st century are so obviously partisan and hysterical, it’s hardly worth comment.”

    Well, his is the worst of the 21st Century if for no other reason than it’s the only one of the 21st Century so far (it is, therefore, also the best, which is certainly something to ponder).

    What makes a presidency good or bad are not the things which are out of its control but those which are; so if we grant that Bush is not responsible for the economy which he was handed going in (which seems reasonable) nor for terrorist attack (less reasonable as he was in office for eight months when it happened, but one can grant it for the purposes of the discussion), we still need to judge him by his actions to both, and to other things; in my opinion the actions of the administration have been rather poor. This has simply not been an administration that is good at getting things done in a competent manner.

    “And as an aside, I don’t think impeachment is a possibility regardless of the outcome of the port deal with UAE.”

    I think that would depend on the circumstances of an attack and whether it could be shown that the deal at all lessened the security of the US. If it were shown an attack had relied on the UAE ownership of the ports in any way, Bush certainly could find himself impeached; Congress gets to define what constitutes “high crimes and misdemeanors,” and depending on the composition of the House, you could probably find 50%+1 members of the House who would say the President finding out about the deal through the media constitutes gross negligence of his position.

    Interestingly, it’s Dubai Ports World that is going to end up saving Bush’s bacon here — while everyone else is posturing, Dubai Ports World asked for a further review of the deal and has been — as far as I can see — bending over backward to make sure everyone is satisfied that their managing the ports does not mean a security risk. As far as I can tell, they’re the ones in all of this who have been acting rationally and competently.

    “The policy analysts may have done their jobs, but the political analysts failed.”

    Entirely correct, in my opinion.

  24. Tim: There are a few things which affect my perceptions of DPW: One, there was at least one attack on OBL was not made because some large contingent of the royal family of the UAE was with him.

    Since DPW is a state-owned entity, this might matter.

    Two: DPW, in the UAE has been shown, more than once, to be more than willing to be complicit with smugglers. If they are willing to be corrupt in small things, why should I trust them to be honest in large things?

    Three: The truck used to kill the president of Lebanon was identified at the bomb site, and the point of origin was discovered. It’s trail to Lebabon was followed, until it got to Dubai, were DPW lost it.

    Again, if they are willing to connive at small crimes (as if the assassination of a nation’s leader were a small thing) why should I trust them to not connive at greater crimes.

    Four: the level of secrecy, and the apparent lack of oversight on this (to say nothing of the apparent conflict of interest on the part of Snow, and the lies (or blatant incompetence) of Rumsfled, who says he knew nothing of the deal, but sat on a board which unanimously approved it.

    In short, it stinks.

    TK

  25. First, I feel the need to state that Jeff is not me, in case anyone read that and knows me and wonders if I suffered a head injury and now support the Bush administration.

    Second, I’m not an expert on container shipping by any means, but I perhaps know a bit more than the average bear, and sight unseen I trust a company run by the Singapore government more than… well, pretty much anyone except Stalinists, because Singapore comes purty darn close.

    The issue is perhaps not so much whether a Dubai-based company is inherently unsafe. The issue is that the Bush administration line has been “we need to wiretap and throw people in prison on our own recognizance in order to guarantee your safety.” Container shipping is *inherently* unsafe, if you scratch the surface of how it’s conducted, and all of the methods of making it safe would pretty much destroy the current state of international commerce. (Say goodbye to Chinese goods costing less than ten bucks, for example.)

    In other words, the guarantee of safety is chimerical, but people want it, so the Bushites will scare you just enough to get what *they* want, and conveniently ignore the many doors left open elsewhere. The mistake here is just that they accidentally shone a spotlight on one of those doors.

  26. The Okinawans would probably themselves say that, “No, we aren’t really Japanese.” Whereas the UAE really are Arabs, the Okinawans have their own language, customs, and culture. They’re a largely separate ethnic type than most other Japanese (and indeed, the Okinawans were living on Okinawa a long time before the Japanese were living anywhere else in the archipelago).

    I explain it to folks by saying, “Okinawa is part of Japan the way that Puerto Rico is part of the United States.”

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