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WHAT WE THINK
Democrats and Republicans join forces against port deal
Stoking racism for political gain

March 3, 2006 | Page 3

A BIPARTISAN wave of anti-Muslim racism is rolling through national politics, threatening further victimization of Arabs and immigrants, and more shredding of our rights.

Late last month, the Bush administration came under fire for its little-noticed approval of a business deal concerning six U.S. ports. Under a multibillion-dollar corporate takeover, management of terminals in six ports on the East and Gulf Coasts will transfer from a British-owned company to Dubai Ports World, a state-run business based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The uproar over this deal followed in the wake of heated controversy over racist cartoons--published first in Denmark, and then in right-wing newspapers around the world--that caricatured the prophet Muhammad.

For most of February, politicians and pundits heaped scorn on the worldwide protests against the cartoons. They ignored the bigotry of the caricatures and the calculated provocation they represent. Instead, right-wing newspaper publishers were portrayed as defenders of "free speech" for printing the cartoons--against the irrational reaction of violence-prone Muslims.

The Bush administration quickly exploited the racist crusade to turn up the heat on potential targets in its "war on terror"--Iran and Syria.

But the administration found itself on the receiving end over the port deal, when a strange-bedfellow coalition of right-wing Republicans and prominent Democrats emerged to denounce the takeover as a threat to "national security."

Typically, Republicans spoke out with a flurry of Arab-bashing rhetoric. But the Democrats--seeing an opportunity to pump up their credentials on a "national security" issue--were equally shrill. "What is deeply troubling to me about this proposed sale is the combination of one of America's vulnerabilities to terrorist attack, our ports, with what appears to me to be a casual approach to reviewing the sale of U.S. port facilities to a country with an uneven record of combating terrorism," declared Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.).

Among media commentators, liberal Maureen Dowd of the New York Times sounded like she was auditioning to replace hatemonger Ann Coulter.

"Maybe it's corporate racial profiling, but I don't want foreign companies, particularly ones with links to September 11, running American ports," Dowd wrote. "What kind of empire are we if we have to outsource our coastline to a group of sheiks who don't recognize Israel, in a country where money was laundered for the September 11 attacks?"

Of all people, George Bush--the man chiefly responsible for the U.S. occupation of two Middle Eastern countries and a witch-hunt against thousands of Muslims and Arabs in the U.S.--sounded like the voice of tolerance. "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," Bush said.

Good question. There is only one answer: one company is Arab-owned, and the other is not.

After Bush threatened to veto legislation that would have blocked federal approval of the port deal, a compromise was brokered to put off the transfer for 45 days.

But by that point, the controversy had become further evidence that racism against Arabs and Muslims is perfectly respectable in U.S. politics. This official sanction for bigotry is certain to have real consequences--setting the stage for hate crimes and deepening anti-Arab racism throughout society.

The politicians' opposition to "foreign" control of U.S. ports would be comical if the stink of racist hypocrisy weren't so strong.

The six ports in question are already under "foreign" management--the British company Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation. But the kind of "foreign" that the politicians are worried about is anything Arab.

The association of Dubai Ports World with al-Qaeda is even more absurd after looking at the company's management. Many top executives are American--such as David Sanborn, formerly the company's director of operations for Europe and Latin America, who last month was appointed administrator of the Transportation Department's Maritime Administration.

The company manages Dubai's immense port of Jebel Ali, a vital part of the U.S. war on Iraq and a frequent host to U.S. warships like the USS John F. Kennedy. No one in Washington, however, is suggesting that the U.S. should stop parking its aircraft carriers in Persian Gulf ports out of concern for Dubai World Ports' lax attitude to "security."

As bad as this hypocrisy is, it was more disturbing in some ways to see liberals and radicals outside the Washington establishment join the uproar--distancing themselves from the worst anti-Arab racism, but giving credence to talk of a threat to "national security."

Nation magazine columnist John Nichols, for example, wrote an article titled "Corporate Control of Ports is the Problem." But he agreed that the sale should "raise security alarm bells"--because Dubai Ports World is owned by the government of the UAE.

"Like most American firms, most Arab-owned firms are committed to making money," Nichols wrote, "and the vast majority of them are not about to compromise their potential profits by throwing in with terrorists." But Nichols would never write about General Motors "throwing in with terrorists." The effect is to put an anti-corporate gloss on an argument that reinforces the racist association of all Arabs with all terrorism.

Likewise, an action alert from Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch declares, "Frist and Congress need to stop bashing Arabs and Dubai Ports World in particular. Whether a private company is domestic or foreign, the bigger issue is what sets their priorities: ensuring our security or making a profit?"

No mention of Chuck Schumer, Dianne Feinstein, Hillary Rodham Clinton or any of the other Democrats who joined the Arab-bashing.

And like Nichols, Public Citizen gives further ground to the bluster about "our national security" in jeopardy--the scare tactic that has saved the Bush administration through the growing opposition to the Iraq war disaster, fears about restrictions on civil liberties, and a rotten economy in which working-class living standards are in nonstop decline.

The Bush White House does, after all, have a port security agenda. During the employers' lockout of 10,500 West Coast dockworkers in 2002, it waved around "national security" as the excuse to undermine union power on the docks.

By jumping on the bandwagon against the port deal, these progressives are building support for future attacks on workers by the administration and port employers--whether U.S. companies or foreign ones.

Like the Bush administration's Iraq war hawks, the Republocratic port security hawks don't care about protecting ordinary people--in the U.S. or anywhere else--from violence and oppression. They are using this issue to score political points and further a witch-hunt against Arabs and Muslims that is designed to silence dissent.

The truth is that no increase in port inspections or police powers or wiretap surveillance will prevent a terrorist attack from taking place so long as the U.S. government continues to be hated around the world for its policies of war and imperialist expansion. The real way to make the U.S. and the world safer isn't increased repression and racist fear-mongering, but standing up to the policies that stoke anger toward America.

A challenge to the anti-Muslim racism that spewed from U.S. politicians and media outlets over the Danish cartoons--and which has now dovetailed with the port deal circus--is desperately needed.

The right wing is advancing its agenda by exploiting the cartoon controversy and claiming that it is standing up for "free speech"--as if right-wing European newspapers are threatened by censorship imposed by Muslims.

Free speech isn't the issue. Racism is. We have to exercise our free speech rights--by exposing the anti-Muslim crusade and challenging racism wherever it appears.

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