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Quasi-racist fearmongers fight Dubai ports deal

Let's be blunt: This fuss about ports is really about Arabs.

Port terminals have been managed, without alarm, by companies from Britain, China, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan. So let's look at the arguments of those who believe we should discriminate against Arabs. . .

Look, Kristof, if this is discrimination against Arabs, that's because it was Arabs who attacked us on 9/11 and still threaten us today. If Singaporeans were plotting to set off nuclear explosions in American cities, then we'd scrutinize them, too.

Even if you believe in racial profiling, you have to look beyond the profile. Senators talk about Dubai in dark tones that suggest they've never been there. Dubai is the Disneyland of the Arab world - it's the place people go to relax, to shop, to drink. It is staunchly pro-American and pro-business, and its vision of the Arab future is absolutely the opposite of Osama bin Laden's. If we want to encourage Arab modernization, we should be approving this deal - not engaging in quasi-racist scaremongering.

Critics of the deal seem to suggest that swarthy men in black turbans are going to be arriving to provide port "security" in Newark. But Dubai Ports World is run mostly by Western executives, under an American chief operating officer. Nothing is going to change on the ground in Newark.

That's easy for a columnist to say; by this time tomorrow, your words will be forgotten at the bottom of the bird cage. But you can't be sure of what will happen in Dubai in 10 years, and this is about ports, the weak link in our homeland security.

Suppose you were Osama bin Laden and wanted to set off a nuclear weapon or a "dirty bomb" in front of the U.S. Capitol. First you would bribe Russians with access to loosely secured nuclear materials.

Then you would ship them to the United States - but the key step would occur in the foreign port: hiding the materials in the shipping container of a well-known and trusted exporter. If the container were shipped out of Rotterdam and seemed to contain Lego toys, for example, U.S. customs officials (who are now also based abroad) might not bother to examine it.

So even if agents of al-Qaida infiltrate Dubai Ports World, and some manage to get U.S. visas and be stationed in Newark, it's not clear that they could help the plot.

So you're claiming that there are no security implications about a company from Dubai running American port terminals?

Sure, there are "implications," but they are manageable. And there are also implications about rejecting and scorning a modernizing ally like the United Arab Emirates - that would be a gift to Qaida propagandists.

The reality is that ports aren't the only investment with security implications, and all countries wrestle with such concerns. China imported American telephone switches and discovered that the United States could eavesdrop more easily on Chinese officials; the Chinese imported U.S. planes, and the United States installed sophisticated bugs on the Chinese version of Air Force One.

So every country accepts tradeoffs. We admit European tourists without visas, even though terrorists may slip in as well. But since 9/11 there has been a nativist, know-nothing streak in politics; a year ago it blocked China's deal to acquire Unocal, and today it rages at the Dubai ports deal.

Secretary of State Cordell Hull used to say that "when goods do not cross borders, armies do." If we want to promote global markets, as an avenue to peace, we have to practice what we preach.

Look, 9/11 showed that you can't be blase about national security.

But paranoia doesn't work so well, either - it has led us to Iraq, Guantanamo and domestic NSA wiretaps. It was counterproductive for Republicans to get so hysterical about national security that they justified locking up hundreds of Muslims after 9/11. And it's just as wrong for Democrats to get hysterical today.

If Democrats want to improve national security, they can tackle it in a thousand ways. The biggest vulnerabilities in our ports could be addressed by increasing customs inspections abroad, by adding radiation detectors, by examining more containers or by making containers tamper-proof. And if the aim is to reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism, then how about more support for the Nunn-Lugar program to secure Russian nuclear materials?

Democrats have so many legitimate reasons to criticize President Bush - from ruining our nation's finances to despoiling American wilderness - that it's painful to see them scaremongering in just the way that Bush himself has.

New York Times News Service