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Dubai, Port Security, and Bush's Lesson On Crying Wolf

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Message Larry Toenjes
Port Security, Anxiety and Domestic Blowback

Laurence A. Toenjes

It took Jack Abramoff, with his well-documented ties to Tom DeLay, to bring attention to the many ways in which lobbyists have insinuated themselves into the personal lives and official duties of Congressmen, and to reveal how the Republicans harnessed those same K-street lobbyists to raise money for them, to provide them with extravagant trips on corporate jets, and to direct even more funds to their favorite charities. Witness Congressman DeLay’s presence at his own fundraiser, hosted by two lobbyists in Washington DC on the same day as primary elections were being held in Texas. Were those lobbyists raising money for his legal defense fund, for his leadership fund (federal or non-federal?), for his DeLay Foundation for Kids fund, or for his campaign fund to be used in his upcoming fight with Nick Lampson? Properly scrubbed, we may never know.

Similarly, it took the revelation of the purchase of the port operations in several major U.S. ports by Dubai Ports World to bring to the public’s attention the reality that many U.S. ports were already being run by foreign firms. Although it now seems that the deal has been brought to a screeching halt, like most affairs, there are some lessons that may be learned from it.

What was surprising was not that more than 70 percent of Americans opposed the Dubai arrangement, but rather that President Bush thought it such a trivial matter that he felt no need to even inform Congress until after it was a done deal.

But perhaps even more surprising was that Bush seemed to have forgotten the extent to which he himself, in the buildup to and rationale for invading Iraq, sensitized the American people to the likelihood that, if left unchecked, Saddam Hussein would almost certainly make deadly WMDs available to terrorists, who would then try to smuggle them into the U.S. with likely deadly effects. He, and other members of his administration, included vivid descriptions of this imagined scenario in speeches, on numerous occasions, in the fall of 2002 and early 2003. At that time most American were still not convinced sending U.S. troops to be killed in Iraq was necessary. All of these speeches, crafted to convince the American public of the necessity of war, contained scary statements such as the following, from his Cincinnati speech on October 7, 2002:

“Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof—the smoking gun—that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.”

At that time, just 13 months after September 11, 2001, Bush’s approval ratings were still nearly 70 percent. People listened, and many remembered.

So when the same people who believed the President’s since-discredited rhetoric to justify the Iraq war suddenly learned that many of our ports were already being managed by foreign companies, and that more were about to be turned over to Dubai Ports World, and when they also learned that in spite of over four years of the war on terrorism only some 5 percent of incoming cargo containers are actually inspected, they became confused, angry, and felt betrayed. If we are unwilling to depend upon other countries to protect our interests abroad, they asked, how can we be sure that foreign companies will properly protect our ports here at home? It didn’t make sense. In defense of the Dubais ports proposal, it was asserted that port security would still be in the hands of U.S. authorities. But the same perceptions that Bush cultivated to get Americans to support his desire to wage war on Saddam conflicted with his desire for foreign management of U.S. ports. He became trapped in his own box. First he cried “Wolf”, then he said this particular wolf has no teeth. When he cries “Wolf” (Iran?) again, should we believe him?

The lesson from this episode is not that Americans need to overcome their unfounded anxieties about an Arab firm operating U.S. ports. Rather, the lesson is that Americans need to be more sensitive to attempts by the administration to manipulate their anxieties.
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Laurence A.Toenjes is retired from the University of Houston ?s Department of Sociology where he was a researcher with The Sociology of Education Research Group. Toenjes received his doctorate in economics from Southern Illinois University.
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