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The Realist-Retreatist Divide

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A long post before a week’s vacation in which posting will be, at best, light. Jed Babbin will be filling in for me next week on the air, and he can continue the debate on the ports.

Jim Geraghty and Jack Kelly have been the two most eloquent proponents of the ports deal, although Robert Kaplan did contribute a very persuasive explanation on my radio show ten days back.

Still, the American public appears very opposed to the concept, and although Jim and Jack are right to spot some nativism in the opposition, and some flat-out stupidity, there is a large segment of the opposition that clings to Reagan’s admonition to “trust but verify.”

The deal came through CFIUS, with no great claim on the public’s trust. The president hadn’t been briefed on it, nor apparently the vice president, the Secretary of Defense or the Secretary of State.

It is a homeland border issue. When proponents point to the fact that the Navy makes wonderful and safe use of the Dubai port, the security lobby shakes its collective head and asks exactly what that is supposed to mean? That any country in which a port call has been successfully executed is now eligible to operate ports in the U.S.?

Here is the argument from the security lobby:

There are two categories of assets/businesses in the United States: those that have no or little bearing on the nation’s security, and those that do.

Generally speaking, all nations that are not enemies of the U.S. are welcomed to invest in the former. We enourage our allies to do so, even those allies with whom we have deep foreign policy differences on such matters as the boycott of Israel. The country is committed to free trade and the global economy, and that commitment is not subject to suspension over particular differences in foreign policy, even on such a crucial matter as trade with Israel. The boycott of Israel is not for us a national security issue.

Assets/businesses in the latter category are different. Defense contractors and their wares, strategic resources and the companies that develop them, some supercomputing businesses etc. –these sorts of assets/businesses are not open to market purchases, as the very existence of CFIUS attests.

The first question is: Are port operations in the first or the second category. I, and most of the country, assumes that even though security at the ports is the duty of the Coast Guard, that nevertheless these are operations in the second category because they are border functions. After the attack on the Cole we became aware of the possibilities of port terrorism. After 9/11 we became aware that terrorists are willing to think way outside of the box and competent enough to carry out such schemes. Since 9/11 there have bulletins of alert focused on ports and a variety of stories about slips in port security and warnings that ports are our weakest link.

Here’s one example from June of 2002: “A warning of possible attacks by divers was issued by the U.S. government before Memorial Day.”

Here is an excerpt from a September, 2004 op-ed by the chief executive of the Port of Seattle:

Worldwide, there are 50,000 ships, carrying 9 million containers, calling at 3,000 ports.

In the US we have 361 river ports and seaports. Every year we get 50,000 visits from 8,100 foreign ships. Every day 21,000 containers enter the US. We can verify the contents of only about 4 percent to 6 percent of those containers. And it would require only one rogue container to bring commerce to its knees.

Imagine what would happen if a biological, chemical, or some other kind of weapon arrived in one of our harbors. Every American port would be affected as authorities worked to determine the extent and the source of the threat. Global trade could practically be shut down. And we don’t have the systems in place to get our seaports up and running again. Our airports were operating a few days after Sept. 11, 2001. Reopening seaports would take substantially longer.

So Americans have been conditioned to be alert to terrorist activity, and warned that America’s ports are a likely target.

They have concluded that ports, and the operations within them, are in category two.

Now arives the U.A.E., which is an ally of the United States, and a good one by all accounts. The question is whether this ally ought to be allowed to buy a category two asset.

The answer has to be: It depends. It will always depend.

Not on the nationality or ethnicity of the ally, but on their security systems and the long-term reliability of those systems against penetration by terrorists.

It is no reply to say that a British company is presently operating the ports in question, and that Britain has terrorists.

Not all allies are alike when it comes to their security services.

Are the U.A.E.’s security services the equal of Great Britain’s M.I.5 and M.I.6?

If not –and, really, they can’t be, can they?– does that qualitative difference matter more than the damage done to our alliance with the U.A.E. and to general principles of open markets by stopping the deal?

That’s the real argument, with a secondary argument about whether or not any close-to-border function shoudl be run even by an ally.

None of this has to do with race, and everything to do with security.

Now to the cartoons, which Jim and Jack also see tied up with the ports debate.

It would have been better for the GWOT had the cartoons not been published, and had the ports deal not been approved by CFIUS.

Both have been distractions, and costly ones, from the real objective of destroying Islamist extremists committed to terrorism in the name of their goals.

Both originated far from the legitmate centers of command and control in the war, and both have drained energy from our efforts and strained alliances with our friends in the Islamic world.

But both have had their benefits as well, as each serve as markers of how not to conduct the GWOT, and reminders that apparently small or inconsequential actions or deals can suddenly become centerpieces in the long war.

The ports deal controversy will pass, as will the furor over the cartoons and the debate over their publication and republication. But the war will go on and one for a very long time.

It isn’t useful, in any of these debates –past, present, and inevitably future– to ascribe motives to our opponents, or to divide allies or drive enemies together.

There are just two serious camps, as I discussed with Mark Steyn and Christopher Hitchens this week: The realists and the retreatists. The ports debate and the cartoon wars both worked to obscure this central divide at home.

That’s the real cost. And when the president returns, I hope he discusses that divide at home as eloquently as his actions abroad demonstrated its counterpart in the world.


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