February 23, 2006

Dubai, Dubya, and Hugh Hewitt

Hatched by Dafydd

Hugh Hewitt raises a very important question and argument that deserves an answer. Ever obliging, here is Big Lizards' response.

Hugh opposes the sale of Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co. (P&O), a British company that operates cargo loading and terminal facilities in six ports in the United States, to Dubai Ports World, a company chartered out of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) which does the same in many other ports around the world. He does not disparage DP World's track record at running port operations; nor does he claim that DP World would be running port security; nor does he deny that the UAE has been tremendously helpful to the United States and the Compleat Ally in the war on jihadist terrorism.

Rather, Hugh's argument is almost minimalist:

The responsible critique is that penetration of this company by Islamists intending massive casualties and damage to the U.S. on its own soil is easier [than] penetration of other foreign companies operating ports in the U.S., specifically the current British operator. [Emphasis added by Big Lizards]

That's not an arguable proposition: Arab-owned and Middle Eastern-based companies are easier to penetrate by Arab terrorists than British companies are.

This is certainly true -- though to what extent is certainly unclear, except that it's not a big difference -- and Big Lizards acknowledged this point in our very first post on the issue, UAE and American Ports: a Modest Proposal:

The UAE has been America's most reliable Arab partner in the war against Islamist jihadi terrorism. Nobody is worried that the current Emir of Dubai will suddenly link up with al-Qaeda, just as we're not worried that General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan will cut a deal with Osama bin Laden. But both countries have many Islamists and many supporters of terrorism and of al-Qaeda... and they cannot always ensure that their companies have not been infiltrated by sleeper agents. That is the danger of Dubai Ports having such access to American ports....

[Lawmakers] say a port operator complicit in smuggling or terrorism could manipulate manifests and other records to frustrate Homeland Security's already limited scrutiny of shipping containers and slip contraband past U.S. Customs inspectors.

(The indented quotation above is from the AP story on the sale.)

But we also noted the following:

Dubai Ports would not, in fact, run any of the security operations at any of the ports; but they would deal with cargo issues, and they would have access to plans showing the layout and configuration of the cargo areas... plans which are, however, already publicly available to every company that does business in those ports (including Saudi Arabian, Turkish, and Indonesian companies).

This is why the difference in ease of infiltration will not make much difference in port security: there are many foreign companies who regularly ship cargo into American ports or have operations running in American ports, and who therefore have access to the same information that the port operations company (whether DP World or P&O) has.

These smaller operators "fly under the radar" a lot better than would the port operator. As Col. Austin Bay told Hugh on the show today, if al-Qaeda wants to infiltrate a port to smuggle in WMD, it would be a lot safer and more effective for them to infiltrate one of these smaller companies at a smaller port with less security, rather than try to compromise DP World in the Port of Baltimore.

But Hugh is correct that it would be marginally easier for Moslem terrorists to infiltrate DP World than to infiltrate P&O. So Hugh asks, why should we accept even a minimal increase in the risk?

Hugh argues his point like a lawyer: in a vacuum. There is an old lawyer joke, perfectly applicable to an old lawyer like Hugh. The client is being sued for a hit-and-run car accident, and his lawyer argues, "first, it's mistaken identity, because my client wasn't even present at the scene of the accident; second, even if he were involved, he was just the passenger; and third, even if he were driving, it was the plaintiff who rammed him!"

The point of this joke is that each argument is completely separate from the others -- and contradictory to boot. Hugh presents only one argument... but in splendid isolation from all other facts.

We must examine all the relevant facts together; the question is not whether one aspect of the deal makes us less secure, but whether the total security situation, considering everything, is better or worse: we can accept a slight increase in the risk of infiltration if, for example, the intensified security regime DP World has agreed to undertake in other areas more than compensates for that increase.

In other words, the very minor increase in the risk of infiltration is much smaller than the decrease of risk resulting from DP World performing a greater number of more intensive cargo inspections around the world, before U.S.-bound cargo even leaves the foreign country. America's net security is better, not worse.

Everything in life is a tradeoff; the only question is whether what you're getting is better than what you give up. Not even taking into account any possible secret "side deals" with the UAE, as we suggested in this post, what we already know we're getting substantially adds to American security; we quoted from the AP story again:

To assuage concerns, the administration disclosed some assurances it had negotiated with Dubai Ports. It required mandatory participation in U.S. security programs to stop smuggling and detect illegal shipments of nuclear materials; roughly 33 other port companies participate in these voluntarily.

What this means has now been fleshed out: DP World operates many major ports around the world; and they will now require every shipping company operating out of those ports to open any or all of these containers to inspection by DP World, local security, and U.S. customs inspectors prior to the cargo even leaving the foreign port. This is the Holy Grail of port security: to be able to inspect all cargo before it even arrives here.

There is no guarantee DP World will inspect them all -- nor is there a guarantee that our own customs agents will do so either. But DP World says it will inspect considerably more than is inspected today.

No security regime is perfect, of course; neither is P&O perfect, for all that it is British. But the standard is not perfection, because the current situation is also imperfect: the standard is relative... taking everything as a whole, are we less secure, more secure, or just as secure with DP World running port ops than we are with P&O running port ops? I would have to answer "just as secure" at least -- and probably more secure, with the additional inspection opportunities we'll have... something P&O cannot give us, since they simply don't have the resources.

Another point is that the very fact that the current company is chartered in the UK leads to complacency on the part of security. Do we require extensive background checks on every Brit that P&O sends to Baltimore or New York City? We would likely not be so nod-and-a-wink for Arab executives coming here for DP World. Any change that heightens awareness is good; just consider which American border, Canadian or Mexican, receives more attention -- and which is virtually ignored.

So to answer Hugh Hewitt's argument directly, I believe that given the totality of the circumstances (as we know them now), American port security will probably be enhanced, not diminished, by this deal; at the very least, there are compensating factors that mean it will be at least as good. And of course, there are numerous other benefits to American security in other areas that result from the whole idea of promoting moderate Islam wherever we can... which is something the UAE has done better than probably any other country on the planet.

If American security is our concern, then the last thing in the world we need is to tell moderate Moslem countries that have bent over backwards to help us in the war on militant Islamism that we don't want their business because they're Arabs.

So Hugh, it is precisely to improve American security that we should continue with this deal... preferably with an American "buffer country" in between; but the more we hear about this deal, the clearer it is that it's even good for our security if DP World runs cargo operations themselves.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, February 23, 2006, at the time of 9:00 PM

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Time Magazine reports that the president, congressional Republicans, and Dubai Ports World are nearing agreement on a new deal that would likely let the old deal proceed by and large as already agreed. (We previously blogged on the DP World... [Read More]

Tracked on February 25, 2006 6:05 PM


The following hissed in response by: cdquarles

Great post Dafydd.

I still do not understand the fuming (beyond the typical, silly political posturing) with this deal. This is a management company who's selling out to a better management company. I like your holding company idea. Nevertheless, the pompous gas bag wannabe God(s) :) making such sound and fury signifying nothing might kibbosh this deal and have the next deal be worse than the status quo. After all, did killing the old Civil Defense system and birthing FEMA to be swallowed by Homeland Security bring about an improvement in disaster management?

The above hissed in response by: cdquarles [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 23, 2006 10:21 PM

The following hissed in response by: RBMN

The UAE government is actually a target of Islamic fanatics and terrorists themselves, because they're so westernized. I suppose you could make the case that they pose a greater danger if they're subject to domestic terrorist kidnap plots or something like that, compromising them, but why would terrorists go at it in such a roundabout way? There are about a thousand ways to get into or near the US without having to spend $7-billion leasing a half-dozen shipping terminals. That's a lot of money to spend just move one cargo ship close to a big city. And they already send ships here everyday from the 100 or so other ports around the world that they run the cargo terminals for. They get the business because they're good at what they do.

The above hissed in response by: RBMN [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 23, 2006 10:25 PM

The following hissed in response by: Mr. Michael

"That's not an arguable proposition: Arab-owned and Middle Eastern-based companies are easier to penetrate by Arab terrorists than British companies are." ~ Hugh Hewett

IS this an inarguable proposition? I would think that a corporation owned by an Arab State would be aware that any act by that corporation would be an act by that State... that is, an Act of War against the United States. That hasn't gone over very well for those who have tried it lately.

I submit to you all, that an Arab State which has at least since 9-11 actively worked with the United States in port security world wide would run a corporation which is much more DIFFICULT to penetrate than some public corporation which might feel the need to cave in to Political Correctness or the lawsuits of the CAIR crowd. Think you have a suspect employee? Maybe you should fire him... but wait! If you're a British Corporation George Galloway will rip you to shreds in the telly and you may lose your cushy position as CEO. Perhaps you'd better not make waves. A corporation owned by Arabs would just remove them... sometimes messily. It all comes down to how much does the UAE want to be a long term member of the International Community, and since 9-11 they have chosen sides against Al Queda.

And why the focus on just Arab terrorists; wouldn't ANY terrorist be a problem? But the main point would be that the UAE is in a much better position to both identify and deal with any potential terrorist or spy. They also have much more motive to do so: They want in on the World Market something fierce! This is a major investment opportunity for them, and in order to create Bona Fides in the world of international finance beyond oil, they need for this to go perfectly... and they are willing -eager even- to do anything the United States wants to make it secure enough to please the most discriminating Senator.

Are the Chinese (Government owned by definition) corporations willing to do the same? The Danish? The English? Not yet. IF anything positive comes from this 'controversy' then it may be an increase in the safety of our ports run by all the OTHER international corporations.

The above hissed in response by: Mr. Michael [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 23, 2006 10:43 PM

The following hissed in response by: Bill Faith

Very clear-headed post, Dafydd. I've quoted a little bit of it and linked to it from my A breakthrough on the UAE ports deal? post. I'm ready to just chill out for a while and hope W's smart enough to do the 45-day investigation the law calls for and hope it comes out OK. 

The above hissed in response by: Bill Faith [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 24, 2006 12:43 AM

The following hissed in response by: bill

One of the missing points is -- assume something were to happen. There is no way that a company like DP World would not be held responsible if an attack were to occur whether they knew or not, and in return the UAE itself. Having an address and a country to retaliate against in response to a terrorist act is not a good idea. This alone would make the company far more vigilant than most other arrangements.

There are far less costly ways for terrorist to enter the US, with or without weapons -- like walk in from Mexico or Canada.

Security is always a cost benefit analysis, as you point out -- there is no benefit here if you are bent on terror, but the UAE is surely in the downside column if something were to happen.

Do the deal.

The above hissed in response by: bill [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 24, 2006 7:07 AM

The following hissed in response by: Tee Jay

One minor point. There are usually very few expatriate staff involved. Most workers are from the indigenous population and only a few in management may be from the owning firm's nominal country. P&O may have some Brits, but they also might have Germans and others.

It is common in the Middle East to hire foreigners to do most of the work and provide the expertise. Are we talking 3 or 4 Dubai people total?

The above hissed in response by: Tee Jay [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 24, 2006 12:16 PM

The following hissed in response by: blueguitarbob

"That's not an arguable proposition: Arab-owned and Middle Eastern-based companies are easier to penetrate by Arab terrorists than British companies are." ~ Hugh Hewitt

How convenient it is to simply declare a point as inarguable, and then move on. Although I support Dafydd's post in general, I am not willing to submit to this weak assertion, without forcing even a _slight_ attempt to make a substantive argument. I urge Dafydd to reconsider his concession of this point.

I am left to assume the rationale behind Hewitt's assertion, because none is given. I see numerous errors in logic. First, the assertion relies on the worst kind of xenophobic stereotype, that the "out group" -- in this case, Arabs -- all conspire together as an evil secret society. Rubbish. Arabs do not cooperate together any better than Europeans do. There is no natural affinity on the basis of ethnicity. This is an especially powerful and timeless subtext for an argument, however; one that has fueled racial and ethnic hatred since Cain and Abel. If anyone believes that a person can more easily "penetrate" a group of Arabs, simply because they are Arab, it demonstrates a stunning lack of knowledge about Arab culture and history, besides ignorance of current events in the Middle East.

Second, the assertion constructs a strawman image of an "Arab company" as one composed completely of Arab employees. This image probably does accurately describe many companies in the Middle East, however we are not dealing in the abstract here. The company at question is DP World, and this image is completely inaccurate in this case. As I've mentioned previously in other comment threads, the management team of DP World is overwhelmingly American and European, many coming to DP World by way of its acquisition of CSX. Certainly after purchasing P&O this week, their management structure will shift even more in that direction. Indeed, DP World looks like the international shipping industry: a global mix of nations that have high-volume exports. The caricature of DP World as an monolithic Arab cabal simply doesn't fit.

Third, the assertion relies on the flip side of xenophobia, that members of the "in group" (in this case the European company P&O) are safer than the "out group" (Arabs). By this logic, a British company should be viewed as more secure to Americans because, well, they aren't Arabs. I concede the point that this may be the kneejerk sentiment of most Americans, but -- given some time for more thoughtful consideration -- it should be rejected.

Fourth, the assertion relies upon the assumption that it would be difficult for an Arab terrorist to "penetrate" a non-Arab group or business. Even given a cursory reflection of the past 10 years, history has clearly demonstrated that a determined terrorist can "penetrate" any organization. For goodness sakes, Saudi terrorists walked into a flight school in Florida, plunked down their money, and told the instructors that they wished to learn how to turn large passenger airliners in flight, but not how to take off or land. Apparently, ethnicity was not sufficient to prevent that "penetration", nor has it been in the course of human history. Those that wish to committ subtrifuge will generally find a way to do so. Those Americans that equate safety with avoidance of Arabs will keep having to learn the insufficiency of that philosophy, again and again, I am afraid.

To conclude, Hewitt's assertion is certainly arguable; and it _should_ be argued. In fact, it should be laughed out the door. Except that it isn't funny, because it serves to cloud the real security issues at hand. People, even educated people, rely upon prejudice because they are threatened, and because it is a fast way to distinguish friend from foe. Such tribalism cuts against the very freedom and liberty we claim to represent.

You see, our ememy isn't hard to spot. Jihadis and terrorists loudly proclaim themselves, and dare us to stop them. We respond by childishly lashing out at an entire ethnic group, condemning them because of their appearance. "Nuke them all," we say. The Jihadis are playing us for fools. The most obvious defense? Stop being foolish.

The above hissed in response by: blueguitarbob [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 24, 2006 10:27 PM

The following hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh


  1. Debate 101: When the proponent makes a statement in the form "X is inarguable," what he means is "I refuse to argue X."
  2. This leaves the opponent with two choices: either accept the precondition and continue with the debate, or give up and go away. Challenging the "inarguable" proposition is equivalent to choice 2.
  3. Thus, since I knew I could make the case without having to challenge the inarguable proposition, I picked choice 1. That's all; nothing more mysterious than that.

As to my saying "this is certainly true," it is, actually... assuming we allow even the slightest smidgeon of "easier." For example, some Arabs have a "pan-Arab" point of view; more Arabs have a pan-Arab POV than Englishmen have a pan-Arab POV.

People with a pan-Arab POV will be less suspicious of Arabs than people without a pan-Arab POV.

Thus, it would be very slightly easier for Arabs to penetrate an Arab company than an English company, just as it would be easier for American spies to penetrate an American company than, say, a French company.

Remember, we're talking about penetrating the company in the UAE, where DP World is currently advertising for new employees (including management-track positions). I think the proposition is true but only feebly so... but that gives me my hook to try to get Hugh's attention by not quibbling about his initial condition -- yet still showing that the deal is good anyway.

And Hugh is changing his mind. Probably not because of anything I said; he says he reads Big Lizards, but I have my doubts, even though I sent him e-mail with this link <G>.

But his mind is steadily being changed by Lileks, Steyn, Austin Bay, Robert Kaplan (author of Imperial Grunts), Victor Davis Hanson, and many others.

The only thing holding Hugh back right now is that Frank Gaffney guy from the Center for Security Policy, who is a professional Cassandra. (Cassandra was right, of course, but I'm not so sure about Gaffney.) Gaffney always sees the dark cloud behind every silver lining. Of course, he believes this is going to end up with some major U.S. port nuked... and since Hugh is already skittish on the issue, of course he latches on to Gaffney's analysis.

But because Hugh is also intelligent, he is starting to be swayed by the rising crescendo of people in "Group 2" (see PoliPundit), and I think he'll end up on the pro-deal side.


The above hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 25, 2006 1:46 AM

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