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Bush picked wrong port fight

George W. Bush is ready to fight for the Dubai-buying-U.S.-ports deal. But a growing bipartisan grouping, in regard to that fight, is saying, "Bring it on."

Defending the proposed sale, Bush said Tuesday, "I want those who are questioning it to step up and explain why all of a sudden a Middle Eastern company is held to a different standard than a great British company."

Okay, I will step up. Let's begin by noting that the United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates are different countries with different histories.

For 400 years, England has been America's mother country and English our mother tongue. Yes, we fought a war or two against each other, but they were "cousins' wars," more akin to family feuds than wars of annihilation. Even during wartime, Americans have naturally looked to Britons for inspiration on law and culture; from William Shakespeare to the King James Bible to C.S. Lewis to J.K. Rowling, British letters have been America's letters.

In the past century, the United States and United Kingdom were shoulder to shoulder in two hot wars and one cold war. Few Americans can forget the oratory of Winston Churchill, who rallied English speakers against Nazism. (And who were the Arabs rooting for in World War II? Just asking.) In the decades since, Washington and London have stayed close. The friendship between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher is the stuff of legend, but if anything, the bond between President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair is even stronger. So strong, in fact, that Blair's critics call him "Bush's Poodle." That's not nice, but it should still be a source of reassurance to Americans.

Now to the United Arab Emirates. First and most obviously, it's Arab. That's not a statement of racism; that's an observation about ethnicity and the culture that comes with it. Virtually all UAE-ers are Arab Muslims, and many probably watch Al-Jazeera TV, which serves up a steady diet of anti-American "newsaganda."

That's the reality of multiculturalism on a planetary scale: People in different countries are different, see things differently, react to things differently. That's why consumers in the UAE eagerly joined in the boycott of Danish goods in the wake of the Mohammed cartoon controversy. The Associated Press reports that Denmark's exports to the UAE are down 95 percent.

Of course, it could be argued that public opinion doesn't matter much in the UAE because that country has never held an election. Freedom House, the human rights watchdog, labels the country "not free" - the lowest category.

But even in dictatorial countries culture matters. The UAE was the hub of the BCCI scandal in the 1990s, which spun a web of money-laundering, embargo-evading and gun-running all the way to New York and Washington.

Later, the UAE had warm relations with the Taliban when it ruled Afghanistan and played host to Osama bin Laden. Nobody quite knows if all those cozy relationships were ever shut down; here's a headline in the Feb. 17, 2002, Washington Post: "Al-Qaida's Road Paved With Gold/Secret Shipments Traced Through a Lax System in United Arab Emirates." Indeed, the U.S. government is still trying to unravel UAE banks' relationships with terrorists, both Arab and Iranian.

So in challenging critics of the port deal, the president actually put the issue the wrong way. The critics aren't holding the United Kingdom and the UAE to a different standard; they are holding the two countries to the same standard. And according to that single standard, Britain and the UAE look different: The British look sterling, while the Arab Emirates look mottled, at best.

Bush pledges to fight to the bitter end on this issue, but I'll bet he won't. In the mordant phrase of conservative blogger Robert A. George, ""Dubai Ports World' is Arabic for Harriet Miers."

Special to Newsday; distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service