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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Robert Reich and Matt Yglesias on Ports 

Robert Reich, on PRI's Marketplace this morning. His basic point is that the key is port security, not who runs the ports.
Reich: I don't mean to minimize the real danger that a terrorist might sneak into an American port, or plant a nuclear bomb in a container heading toward an American port...but if this happens, it won't be because of the nationality of the company that has the contract to run the ports, or the nationality of its managers or even the workers on the ground. It will be because this nation didn't want to pay for the gamma ray monitors and radiation scanners and inspectors necessary to oversee more than a tiny percent of containers heading into America. Because we didn't want to bother with security checks and special ID cards and fingerprints and other biometrics for workers at the ports and other border crossings. Because all of this would cost about $7 billion a year, out of a defense and homeland security budget of hundreds of billions; and might slow down commerce through our borders just a bit and reduce some corporate profits. See, the real issue here is not about nationality. It's about what we're prepared to pay for our security. It's about whether we pay mostly for a war in Iraq or we finally get serious about security here at home.
This is a good point, and I think Democrats would be wise to get in front of this story by making it about the Bush Administrations total failure to secure our ports, not just about the Dubai company deal. That said, Matt Yglesias has a good counterpoint
Friedman quotes Steven Flynn, saying that, "Among the many problems at American ports, who owns the management contract ranks near the very bottom." And, indeed, the Bush administration has screwed up port security in myriad ways. This is hardly a reason to give them a free pass for screwing it up in this particular way. Rather, the president's sorry record of nonchalance on the general subject is reason to doubt assurances that he's performed due diligence in this matter.
More from Matt Y. here
To pivot away from the narrow security concern, the other thing we have here is a reminder of the elephant in the room when it comes to Version 3.0 of the Bush Doctrine -- America's strategy for the Middle East is centered on transforming its states into liberal democracies, but our main local partners in this effort are...sharia-enforcing hereditary monarchs. Nobody seems to talk about it anymore, but this is obviously dumb. I used to think it reflected insincerity on Bush's part, but insincerity implies that there's some coherent "real" policy that's being implemented behind the make-believe one.

After years of watching, I just don't see what that could be. Instead, I think it's genuine incoherence. But one way or another it's a big deal. And it's an incoherence that goes beyond Bush. The bulk of American elite opinion has switched over to the Bush view that we need to democratize the Middle East, but as we've been seeing in the port controversy the bulk of American elite opinion, like Bush himself, thinks the Arabian peninsula's monarchical elites are wonderful people who we should be supporting to the end. You can't do both. Maybe someday I'll get invited to Davos and learn what's so impressively awesome about Emir so-and-so (fun parties, according to Syriana), but until then I think the American public's gut instinct that these are not, generally speaking, the folks you want to rely on reflects a certain wisdom.
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