War Rhetoric Blows Back in Port Furor

Ronald Brownstein's column appears every Sunday. See current and past Brownstein columns on The Times website at

President Bush may not like the arguments that critics are raising against the Dubai company attempting to take over cargo and cruise operations at ports in six U.S. cities. But he should recognize them. The arguments marshaled against Bush closely echoed the ones he deployed to defend the Iraq war.

The president, in other words, is stewing in a pot he brought to boil.

At the core of Bush’s case for invading Iraq was the contention that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks changed the burden of proof in evaluating potential threats. Bush justified the war, despite inconclusive intelligence about whether Iraqi President Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, largely on the grounds that after Sept. 11, waiting for definitive evidence of danger was itself too risky.

“Facing clear peril,” Bush declared in his starkest expression of this argument, “we cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.”


In so many words, that’s what many critics are saying now about the deal that would allow Dubai Ports World, controlled by the government of the United Arab Emirates, to acquire the British-owned Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co. and assume control of its port facilities in the six American cities.

As Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), ordinarily a reliable Bush supporter, wrote last week: “While the United Arab Emirates has been an ally over the last few years, it certainly has ties to Islamic fascism, and trusting that it will remain on our side in the war on terror is not a risk that I am willing to take.”

That sort of argument, which revolves around the fear of things that might someday occur, is inherently difficult to refute. Indeed, as this debate gathered momentum last week, it often seemed the two sides were talking past each other -- with one looking to the future, the other to the past.

The administration is building its case on experience. It says the risk in the port deal seems minimal because the UAE has cooperated in the war on terrorism since Sept. 11 and participates in our international program to monitor cargo shipping.

But, the critics fire back, that record offers no guarantees about tomorrow. Things could change. Somehow, someone in the Dubai company could facilitate a terrorist plot or gain knowledge about American security that might help terrorists. When the consequences of a mistake are potentially so grave, as Santorum and others argued last week, why take the risk?

If this division sounds familiar, it should. It roughly tracks the divide in the national security hierarchy over Iraq. Only in that case, Bush took the opposite side.


Based on the experience since the first Gulf War, many in the intelligence community believed the risk posed by Hussein could be managed without war, Paul R. Pillar, the chief Middle East analyst for the CIA at the time of the 2003 invasion, recently wrote in Foreign Affairs.

“A view broadly held in the United States and even more so overseas was that deterrence of Iraq was working, that Saddam was being kept ‘in his box’ and that the best way to deal with the weapons problem was through an aggressive inspections program to supplement the sanctions already in place,” Pillar wrote.

But Bush, in his major speeches on the war, repeatedly insisted that the U.S. could not take the risk that such assessments were wrong.

In making his case for invasion, Bush focused partly on actions Hussein had taken -- invading Kuwait in 1990, using chemical munitions against his own people, impeding international investigation of his weapons programs.

But much of Bush’s argument centered on what Hussein might do in the future. Words like “could” and “might” were linchpins of the president’s case.

In the 2003 State of the Union, delivered shortly before the invasion, Bush’s most vivid and powerful images all came couched in the conditional.


“With nuclear arms or a full arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, Saddam Hussein could resume his ambitions of conquest in the Middle East and create deadly havoc in that region,” Bush warned.

“Secretly, and without fingerprints, he could provide one of his hidden weapons to terrorists or help them develop their own.”

It’s a safe bet that similar arguments will be common in Congress if the Dubai deal advances. Politically, opposing this deal is surely less risky than blessing an acquisition that someday, literally, might blow up on its supporters.

But acting to block the transaction carries risks too -- and of a more imminent nature. The furor over the deal comes as the Muslim riots over the Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian election and the daily provocations from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have underscored the ferocity of the grievances that separate the Western and Islamic worlds.

The dispiriting drumbeat of these events -- punctuated by the savage sectarian violence convulsing Iraq -- are causing even temperate voices to wonder if the world is really careening into some fundamental clash of civilizations.

It’s easy to predict the impact if the U.S. decides it does not trust a company owned by even an ostensibly friendly Arab government to operate facilities at American ports. Many in the Muslim world would surely take that as a sign that America sees itself in a clash of civilizations -- and in that interpretation, the Muslim world might well be correct.


Stephen M. Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, says the Western and Islamic worlds increasingly appear trapped in a “conflict spiral ... that is hard to unwind.”

By Bush’s own logic in Iraq, the Dubai port deal is suspect. But Congress needs to think carefully about whether the deal’s potential risk justifies the clear and present danger of twisting that spiral a notch higher.