Fear Wins Fake Ports Debate

Hostility towards Arabs and Muslims is more widespread than it was the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001. This negative animus both provided the tinder for the “Dubai port controversy” and was in turn, fueled by the shameful way this issue was debated.

A recent Washington Post poll shows that the US public now has a net negative view of Islam (43% favorable, 46% unfavorable). These numbers represent a 10-point drop in favorable attitudes and a doubling of negative attitudes when compared with polls taken a few months after 9-11.

What this suggests is that, though dormant at times, the animus remains a vein just below the surface that can either erupt in times of crisis or be tapped into by demagogues seeking to exploit its power.

This is exactly what happened in the recent Dubai ports debate. Playing off of the public’s insecurity and fear, both Democrats and Republicans exploited anti-Arab sentiment. When I made the observation a few weeks ago, I was challenged by emails and responses, many of which were so filled with bigotry and rancor, they actually served to make my point.

Some may deny that this controversy was about preying off of prejudice and ignorance for political gain, but that is exactly what happened, and it is still happening in this sad episode of American politics.

White House advisor Karl Rove fired the opening round, when at a winter meeting of the Republican Party, he made it clear that in November 2006, Republicans would again play the trump card of “national security,” to retain control of the Senate and House.

Democrats, wary of this ploy, which cost them victories in 2002 and 2004, found in the Dubai Ports World (DPW) story an issue which would provide them with a weapon to “out-Rove Rove.” They had tried for years, but failed, to successfully challenge the White House on the issue of port security. DPW provided them with an Arab target to shoot at, and shoot they did. The rhetoric was harsh and false, distorted and exaggerated. But, because it was an Arab country, they found a believing public and no serious debate was required.

For its part, the White House failed to respond early on, and by the time they issued their talking points rebuttals about the “US-UAE relationship,” and the “role of the UAE in the war on terror,” it was too late. The negative stories, though false, had come to be believed and became a part of accepted discourse.

The distortions became fodder for campaign commercials. In one, Democrat Harold Ford (a Tennessee Congressman running for the US Senate) stands in front of the port of Baltimore and says:

President Bush wants to sell this port and five others to the United Arab Emirates–”a country that had diplomatic ties with the Taliban; the home of two 9/11 hijackers, whose banks wired money to the terrorists.

I’m running for the Senate because we shouldn’t outsource our national security to anyone. I’ll fight to protect America and keep your family safe.

That fact that:

  • President Bush wasn’t selling the port, and DPW was simply purchasing the rights to manage operations;
  • The UAE recognized the Taliban and provided the US with valuable intelligence because we had no intelligence assets of our own in that country;
  • While two of the 9-11 terrorists came from the UAE, they were recruited and received operational training for terrorism in Germany, not the UAE; and
  • US banks also wired money and gave credit cards to the terrorists–”

–all these facts don’t matter. Fear trumped reality. The same was true for every other story that was used to discredit DPW and the UAE.

There was a relentless drip-drip-drip of a new allegation a day. Though they were rebutted, they were nevertheless echoed by politicians in both parties and radio and TV talk shows, and they stuck.

Republicans, realizing that their President was too weak to save them, joined the fray. Legislation offered by powerful Republican House leaders spelled the end of DPW’s bid to do business in the US.

And so after three weeks, DPW officials agreed to divest themselves of operations. The controversy will not end, and real damage has been done.

Look at the impact. Army General John Abizaid, the Commander of US Forces in the Middle East, warned late last week, “the bashing of Arabs and Muslims” was “unnecessary,” and could prove detrimental to the US’s ability to function in the region. President Bush also warned about the need to keep allies and the damage that this ill-informed campaign presents to our relationships with countries who work with us.

Until a few weeks ago, the UAE was also unknown to most Americans. Now, this modernizing economic powerhouse has become known in a crude and distorted caricature.

As the Washington Post poll demonstrates, anti-Arab sentiments are up and because of the way Republicans and Democrats played the xenophobia card, America is in danger of going down the very risky path of isolationism and protectionism. Articles are already suggesting that foreign investors are thinking twice about the US–”not a good thing.

A final note. It is somewhat ironic to observe that after all the controversy and despite the apparent success of DPW’s opponents, we are still no closer to a needed debate about port security. The Democratic Party, ignored by its Congressional representatives, has valiantly been attempting to issue regular releases about the discussion Americans should be having about increased funding, increased inspections and better security procedures at our ports. But too little attention is being paid to substance, when fear works so well as a substitute.