Thursday, February 23, 2006

Vigilance and Virtue
The port storm

As the port storm subsides, the debate in the U.S. over the Dubai Ports World acquisition of six US ports has, I'm hoping, moved into a new phase of more careful and deliberative debate over the facts and the issues. That debate is appropriate and it is part of the American process. It will be most unfortunate if the Arab world is left with only the knee jerk reaction - because visceral reactions can indicate sheer prejudice.

Knee jerk reactions can also indicate other deep-seeded experiences - I'm thinking in particular of the horrors of 9/11 and the grief that has stayed with us. But that does not absolve us of our duty and, indeed, our self interest in demonstrating that if the US public rejects the deal it has done so because of a real safety issue - but that needs to be demonstrated. There is no shame in knee jerk reactions per se as long as good judgment prevails in the end.

I subscribe to the Bush strategy in the war on terror. The strategy can capsulized in two words: vigilance and virtue. Vigilance as in protection of the homeland. Virtue as in the virtues of democracy, the rule of law, and free markets and fostering those institutions in the rest of the world. They complement each other in the war on terror.

As I see it, with the information I have at hand, it is clear why approval of the port deal is in full alignment with that strategy. Port security is part of vigilance, but port security will not change with this change in ownership. Port security may be weak. If so, do something about it, don't use it as a false diversion to win an argument.

A knee jerk rejection of the port deal would send exactly the wrong message. A knee jerk reaction - which says, with no substantive justification, it's OK for a UK company to own those ports, but not for a UAE company to do so - would be inconsistent with the virtue half of the strategy. A hearts and minds campaign is doomed if it is phony.

Bush has an MBA. Like a good MBA he has made his mission and strategy quite clear. Not widely appreciated perhaps, but quite clear. The proposition is: approval of the port deal fits the strategy. It appears to me that many American politicians and pundits never tried to put it in that context to begin with. The job for the White House is to bring the debate around to that context.

Let's have a closed mind on only one thing: knee jerk judgments.

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