Denouncing the Dubai deal won't ensure port security

Politicians' exercise in Arab bashing doesn't address the legitimate issue of port security.

There's been a virtual frenzy with senators, congressmen, and governors jumping over one another to take the lead in bashing the Dubai port deal, the United Arab Emirates, or the Bush administration. It's all being done, critics say, in the name of national security.

But, in reality, what is taking place is nothing more than crass political posturing and an irresponsible and ill-informed attack on an Arab country that has been a strong ally of the United States.

At its essence, three factors are driving this ruckus: It's an election year, the public has a continued concern about national security, and there's an Arab country involved. Elected officials are preying on the public's fear by exploiting an Arab bogeyman. The language they've used is shameful, irresponsible, and downright false.

But in election year politics, it doesn't matter.

Because it involves an Arab country, members of Congress assume they won't be called to account for a falsehood. Smearing all things Arab remains the last acceptable form of ethnic bigotry in America.

As a result of this mind-set, the UAE, one of America's closest Middle Eastern allies in the war on terror - a country that has sent troops to fight alongside ours in Afghanistan, complied with all of our antiterrorism initiatives, and provides the largest base port for US military ships - is being called a "rogue government," an "Islamic fascist" state, and the "home of terrorists."

In the Middle East, people are scratching their heads.

If the UAE, which has stuck its neck out to support the United States, can be treated with such scorn, some ask, what's the point of being a friend of America?

It is ironic and troubling that US public diplomacy czar Karen Hughes recently was in the UAE to promote America, and that UAE and US trade teams last week entered yet another round in their talks toward establishing a free trade agreement.

Ms. Hughes must feel like packing it up and going back to Texas. If this anti-UAE campaign succeeds, there is no public diplomacy campaign that can salvage the damage. Arabs, you see - not unlike any other people - react not by what you say about yourself but by how you treat them.

Having said all this, the current exercise in Arab bashing is, in fact, nothing more than election year politicking at its worst. Democrats are feeling that President Bush is vulnerable and are piling on the criticism, while Republicans, feeling vulnerable, are joining the fray.

If it weren't so serious and dangerous, it might be comical.

We've seen scenes like this before, as congressmen and senators trip over one another on their way to the microphone, calculating just how outrageous they need to be to guarantee that their sound bite will be the one on the evening news. In this game, facts don't matter. Instead, with officials hyperventilating on their own rhetoric, exaggerations abound.

Especially disturbing is that the legitimate issue of port security has been lost in the melee.

If Congress really wanted to have a debate about port security and the failings of the current system, it would be talking about increasing funding for hiring more customs officials, beefing up our Coast Guard presence, and providing additional equipment to screen more of the containers that enter our country. This is what is needed.

Regardless of what company owns the management of some of our ports, the security issues remain in the hands of the Department of Homeland Security.

Instead of a real debate, we're given scapegoating. Instead of making us more secure, politicians engage in the exercise of isolating us more from the world and damaging our relationship with an important ally in the Middle East. They ought to be ashamed. They owe an apology not only to the UAE but also to the American people.

But since politics and shame are estranged bedfellows, I'm not holding my breath.

James J. Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute.

©2006 Los Angeles Times.

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