THE CONTROVERSY OVER ‘DUBAI PORTS WORLD’ AND AMERICA’S SECURITY
"On Wednesday, the House Appropriations Committee essentially blocked the deal (with Dubai Ports World) by voting 62-2 to insert an amendment into a $68 billion emergency supplemental funding bill for military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan... House Republicans are openly defying the President, apparently to prevent Democrats from outflanking them on national security and outsourcing issues as elections approach." CNN, March 9th.
In a bi-partisan move, Congressional leaders have just told the President that they would pass measures to block a deal that authorizes management of major U.S. ports by an Arab Emirates-based company, and that they would do this by veto-proof majorities. This was necessary since President Bush had threatened to veto any legislation that stopped the transaction with the Dubai company from proceeding. Congressional consensus in both the House and Senate moved to prohibit the present contract with Dubai Ports World which gave the company rights to manage critical ports in the U.S. These ports are currently operated by the privately owned, London-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company.
This congressional move is a blow to the Bush administration which has actively and steadfastly promoted the arrangement with Dubai Ports World and has vouched for the various port security operations that would be maintained within American control. The Administration has also pointed out that in many instances, other ports as well as portions of other major city’s infrastructure are presently managed by foreign companies. In light of the Administration’s position and the furor it has raised within Congress, it becomes important to try to understand what is going on that stirs this controversy and why it has gained so much national attention.
In the first place, the controversy is not about the Dubai firm itself. It is about the issue of safety and it is about fear.
In the second place, it is not about facts regarding who is actually in control of the safety of the ports, since the U.S. Coast Guard and other American security agencies would continue to be in charge of safety and security as they have in the past.
In the third place, it is not about information - the kind of information that President Bush has invited the legislature to share in, believing that if they knew more they would arrive at a different outlook. Unfortunately, the basis for considering information offered by the current Administration as significant has diminished, in the eyes of many, along with the perception of the reliability of this information.
This controversy is, fundamentally, about the sense of vulnerability that is pervasive in America today. It involves three key psychological factors which underlie the current discussion. The first is fear; the second is the sense of helplessness; the third is the anticipation of deception. Recent polls have shown that the vast majority of the American public are outrightly opposed to Arab management of any of America’s ports and some, at this time, are outrightly opposed to any foreign management of ports or of other important infrastructure. In the past, this has become a common feature of American economic life. The reason for current opposition is that fear has become a much more important factor in America’s emotional and political life – fear of threat, fear of terrorist attack, fear of not knowing what will happen next.
Regarding this issue, the undercurrents of fear within collective consciousness concerning the likelihood of another terrorist attack of the 9/11 variety are widespread and potent, if often unexpressed. Reassurances of adequate protection, including the development of a new Department of Homeland Security, have done little to assuage the fear that many feel, the sense of something impending, and, in some, the feeling of resignation. Fear, in all its many forms, is adding fuel to the current debate about Dubai because it is there in the background at all times now. It is there without a focus and without much that can be done about it. Here, in the context of keeping the Arab Emirates away from America’s ports, something can be done about fear. Something active and proactive. Congress can prevent the contract with a specific organizational entity from becoming viable. The possibility for ‘doing something’ is a welcome relief to those who feel fear and helplessness.
Helplessness is the second psychological factor. America lives now with a huge sense of vulnerability that has not been present before. There is a sense among many that anything could happen at any time and that we no longer know what adequate protection would be since the threat to this nation is not localized in terms of target areas and since the sense of hostility and hatred that fuels this threat appears to be growing, not becoming more contained. This sense of vulnerability is rampant within America's awareness. It leads to fear, but it also leads to withdrawal, indifference, and just getting on with the business of daily life since one can’t do anything about the larger issues anyway. The sense of vulnerability is often accompanied, whether consciously or unconsciously, by a strong sense of personal helplessness, which is one reason why many feel that democracy and the underlying principles of democracy are being eroded in this country – because the average citizen feels that they have little or no voice in what is happening to them. It is common to feel today that government is making all the decisions and that it would be hard to make a decision as a collective citizenry in any case, since adequate information upon which to base a decision is often not available to the public. The issue of helplessness and vulnerability in relation to decision-making leads to the third issue in the Dubai controversy – that of deception.
Though emotions of fear and helplessness are strong, facts are not plentiful in relation to whether these emotions are appropriate in the present situation or whether the present situation is symbolic of a larger issue. Facts presented by the current Administration have become suspect in the minds of a great many people due to the repeated misrepresentation of facts related to the Iraq war, to the treatment of detainees, to the policy of 'extraordinary rendition', to policies at Guantanamo, and most recently to the practice of secret wiretapping. Because of these revelations, the notion that a fact presented by the Administration is truly a fact, is now increasingly called into question. Add to this the increasing awareness that major media outlets are no longer held up as presenting ‘facts’ objectively either - whether due to political affinity which causes reiteration of the government’s ‘spin’ on a subject as if it were 'information' - or the selective attention to certain aspects of the presentation of news according to its entertainment or‘sales value’ - there is increasing distrust of what media outlets are presenting as facts without there being an obvious way to do anything about it. This perception leads to sadness, to cynicism, to withdrawal, to numbness, and to a sense, in some, of outrage, at the same time.
All three issues are present in the Dubai controversy: 1) the activation of underlying fear and the perception that the Administration is not adequately addressing this fear nor adequately protecting this country; 2) the presence of vulnerability and helplessness - the sense of being unsafe while others are making the decisions for oneself, and 3) suspiciousness regarding the presentation of ‘facts’ by the current Administration based on past experiences of deception.
In this situation, in addition to representing the public, Congress also has a vested interest in not becoming disempowered by the Executive branch of government. While it is, indeed, permeated by the same fears that the public is permeated by, it nevertheless has more inherent power and authority than the general public. It has the capacity to act in the face of helplessness, fear, and vulnerability in order to counteract the sense of disempowerment. This is what is happening now. Congress has acted in order to put a stop to run-away power that overrides fear, helplessness, and vulnerability. This power responds to an agenda of its own that claims to be addressing these very issues, while in fact it is often undermining them.
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