Monday, February 27, 2006

Any Storm in a Port

There is much ado in the press about a recent attempt, perhaps as a side effect of the pursuit of a larger goal, of a company owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates to take over management responsibilities of several important U.S. ports. I say “as a side effect” because the taking on of these responsibilities will occur when the UAE firm takes over a British firm that already manages the facilities. The hostile reaction of Americans and our political leaders does not do us proud. And, while these arguments are also important, I do not focus on the fact that most security responsibilities will remain in the hands of the U.S. government.

The primary argument against allowing this transaction to occur is that it enhances the chances of these ports being used as the target of or to facilitate a weapons-of-mass-destruction attack. This argument does not seem compelling. All of the 9/11 hijackers took their flying lessons at very ordinary U.S. flight schools. They bought their tickets on U.S. airlines through normal channels. The only instance of which I am aware where a “Muslim” business has proved unusually fruitful in advancing the jihad involves not a gigantic multinational corporation such as the one seeking to operate the ports but very small businesses that transfer money in relatively small amounts from overseas nationals of predominantly Muslim countries back home.

So is a multinational company managed mostly by Europeans, Americans and other non-Arabs but owned ultimately by the government of an Arab country more likely to be a conduit for jihad? I don’t see how. Multinational companies are overwhelmingly constrained by the need to maximize profit, and is the least likely sort of institution to be penetrated by covert agaents. Indeed, just today it was announced that the company is requesting extended scrutiny by the U.S. government. One is hard-pressed to imagine, for example, the Saudi religious establishment or the Pakistani secret services or other organizations that are not multinational organizations even consenting to, let alone requesting, that sort of scrutiny. But that is a telling notion of how constrained this “Arab” firm is by the needs of its customers. (Even the idea of an “Arab” firm is of limited value. The United Nations is where we dream of people of all nations working together in harmony, but the management teams of global corporations is where, united by a single objective, they actually do.)

The primary thing that makes us vulnerable to attack is our very nature as an open society, and there is no turning back from that. That the U.S. left in particular would opportunistically leap on the port saga while objecting to restraints on other aspects of our openness - immigration, students coming from abroad to study, and other things equally costly to restrict but more in their political interest to defend - is particularly foul.

Alas, by subjecting this bid to extra (and even paranoid) scrutiny, we are sending a message to the world. And that message is that the rule of law in the U.S. is not what it appears. If you are of or your firm is ultimately owned by people of the wrong genotype or religion – Arabs today, perhaps Chinese or other theoretically hostile nations tomorrow – your contractual rights in the U.S. are less than those of everyone else. And so doing business in the U.S. legal system becomes riskier not just for Arabs but for anyone who might theoretically imagine the American government turning hostile to his. We then find it more costly to transact with people outside our borders. The undeniable turmoil in the Islamic world is driven much more by people threatened by globalization than by those embracing it, and in our reaction to this episode we are signaling that when we sing its praises we don’t mean to include them too. The reaction of them, and of many varieties of non-Americans, to this signal will be predictable, and to our detriment.


Post a Comment

<< Home