As President Bush faces a bipartisan furor from the deal to hand over control of operations at six American ports to a Dubai firm, Democrats are using the controversy to underscore the ties of the administration and its allies to Arab nations.
In particular, Democrats are pointing to links between administration cronies and Dubai World Ports, a company owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates. They also have rushed to join critics objecting to the deal on the grounds that the firm has taken part in the Arab boycott of Israel.
At least three Jewish organizations — B’nai B’rith International, Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs and the Anti-Defamation League — have come out against the port deal.
However the controversy of the ports plays out — on Sunday the administration agreed to a 45-day security review of the sale — the debate is providing Democrats with an opportunity to revive a familiar charge of theirs from the last presidential election: that Bush’s judgment on foreign affairs and national security is clouded by his close ties to the Arab world. The theme, featured in the controversial 2004 documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11,” was pressed during the 2004 campaign in cable television advertising by several prominent Democratic-affiliated 527 groups, and in particular formed the basis of a print campaign undertaken by the National Jewish Democratic Council.
“Certainly the Bush family has an incredibly close relationship with Arab royalty,” said Erik Smith, a Democratic strategist who in 2004 made several television ads highlighting the business ties between members of the Bush family and the Saudis. “The White House said the president didn’t know about the deal, but if he did, I doubt he would have objected. He’s repeatedly turned a blind eye in Saudi Arabia and other places when things have happened that are not in our interest.”
Last week, the chairman of the North Carolina Democratic Party, Jerry Meek, demanded that his state’s Republican senator, Elizabeth Dole, recuse herself from any congressional deliberations over the controversy because her husband Robert, the former GOP presidential candidate and Senate majority leader, is working as a lobbyist for Dubai World Ports to help gain approval for the $6.8 billion purchase of Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation, the British-based company that runs the ports in question.
Two Senate Democrats, Bill Nelson of Florida and John Kerry of Massachusetts, said they would block the confirmation of former Dubai Ports World executive David Sanborn, Bush’s pick to head the U.S. Maritime Administration, until a hearing could be held to review his tenure at the firm. The agency oversees civilian ports and shipping.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a Jewish New York Democrat, also raised concerns that national security might be taking a back seat to cronyism.
“The Bush administration has a highly troubling record of handing contracts and lucrative positions to individuals on the basis of personal friendship — not the public interest,” Nadler said in a statement. “Given the president’s cozy relationship with the governments of oil-rich nations, I think it’s only natural for alarm bells to be going off.”
The Houston Chronicle reported last week that in the 1990s, “Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan al Nahyan and the people of the United Arab Emirates” contributed at least $1 million to President George H.W. Bush’s presidential library at Texas A&M University. The former president’s investment firm, The Carlyle Group, has its sole Middle Eastern office in Dubai, and, according to the online journal Salon, the UAE government has $100 million invested with the firm. The current president’s brother, Neil, also has business interests in the Arab nation.
During the 2004 campaign, Republicans dismissed the criticisms of the Bush family’s Gulf ties as racism and fear-mongering, an approach the president tried last week when he threatened to veto any legislation killing the deal. Bush told reporters traveling with him on Air Force One that those questioning the deal should “step up and explain why all of a sudden a Middle Eastern company is held to a different standard.”
The executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Matt Brooks, called the criticisms “partisan political smear games.”
“With five years in office and what he’s done for Israel and reshaping the Arab world, to say that he’s in the pocket of the Arabs is absurd,” Brooks said.
The vociferous criticism of the deal by congressional Republicans, however, as well as the intervening controversies over the administration’s handling of the Harriet Miers Supreme Court nomination and Hurricane Katrina, appears to be giving the cronyism charge more traction. Even some conservative publicists seem sensitive to the idea.
On National Review’s Web site, commentator Andrew McCarthy wrote that he was “surprised and saddened” that, during a recent television interview on the port deal, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales “obstinately refused to answer the question of whether we should be doing business [with] (or regarding as an ally) a country that refuses to recognize Israel.”
“Israel is one of our closest and most loyal allies,” McCarthy wrote. “It is fighting for its survival against people who yearn for its destruction — people who may be being backed financially as well as politically and morally — by the UAE.”
A Jerusalem Post report disclosed Tuesday that Dubai World Ports enforces the Arab boycott against Israel — a fact seized upon by such leading Democrats as Kerry and Howard Dean, Democratic National Committee chairman. Dean mentioned the report in remarks he gave Tuesday morning before the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Jewish community’s main public policy arm.
The boycott disclosure boded ill for the deal, some observers said.
“It’s against American law for a company doing business in the United States to participate in the Arab boycott of Israel,” observed Josh Block, a spokesman for the main pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Last week, the ADL said it did not have a position on the issue. But Tuesday, the organization’s national director, Abraham Foxman, said that “Dubai continues to be an active partner in the economic boycott of Israel” and that is “reason enough to suspend or even cancel the implementation of the contract [for the operation of the seaports].”
B’nai B’rith essentially reprised the arguments raised by many Democratic and Republican lawmakers who argue that the deal could put the country at risk by granting control to a country that has a mixed record on terrorism. The Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs took a wider approach, arguing that no foreign-owned firms should be permitted to run American ports.
The controversy threatens to make port security one of the higher-profile issues of the 2006 midterm elections. Democrats long have charged that Republicans have under-funded port security: GOP lawmakers nixed a 2005 proposal that would have added $400 million in funding for port security, including $13 million to double the number of overseas port inspectors. Republicans also killed a 2003 Democratic amendment to add $250 million for port security grants. According to Time magazine, the country has spent $18 billion on airport security since the September 11, 2001, attacks, but only $630 million on safeguarding the nation’s ports, and the Department of Homeland Security and the Coast Guard have determined that about 70 of the nation’s 361 ports remain vulnerable to terrorism.
Republicans have maintained that the money spent on local port security is adequate. Moreover, the administration pointed out in talking points it delivered to Jewish communal leaders, American authorities have sole responsibility for securing the ports, several foreign-government-owned companies already operate port facilities, and the UAE is an American ally and partner in the war on terror.
Critics of the deal point out that two of the 9/11 hijackers hailed from the UAE and that Al Qaeda has laundered money through the UAE banking system. They also note that the UAE was one of only three countries that recognized the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and allege that it has served as a trans-shipment point for parts for the nuclear programs of several rogue regimes, including Iran. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently countered that the American naval cooperation with the UAE is more intensive than with any other country in the region. Other American officials have noted that the UAE has been a leader in heightening shipping container security standards.
The administration arguments have gained little sway with the public. Some 70% of Americans oppose the ports deal with 21% supporting it, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll. Lawmakers are vowing to assert oversight, especially since new questions about it have emerged. Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who is chairwoman of the Homeland Security Committee, this week released part of a Coast Guard report that spoke about “many intelligence gaps, concerning the potential for [Dubai Ports World]… assets to support terrorist operations,” according to a report in The Associated Press. Administration officials say that all security questions were answered as part of their initial review of the deal.
Two Jewish Senators, Democrat Charles Schumer of New York, a longtime advocate of increased port security, and Republican Norm Coleman of Minnesota introduced an emergency bill this week with bipartisan sponsorship that would give Congress authority to reject the deal after the 45-day review period. Senator Hillary Clinton, the other New York Democrat, and Senator Robert Menéndez, a New Jersey Democrat, earlier introduced their own bill that would block the sale of any port operations to foreign governments.
Democrats expressed hope that the deal would lead to more attention to port security. “It’s obvious that the Republicans are in a period of awakening on this issue,” said a Schumer spokesman, Israel Klein. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to use the spotlight on our ports to increase funding for security, because it’s woefully inadequate.”