The great Indian writer Khushwant Singh once penned a poignant story called Karma, about the plight of Indian elites under British colonialism. The protagonist, Sir Mohan Lal, wants only to be accepted as a gentleman. Impeccably dressed in his Savile Row suit and Balliol tie, brandishing a copy of The Times, he proudly takes his seat in the first-class compartment of a train—only to be accosted by a couple of drunken, loutish British soldiers who fling him out, seeing only a “wog”.
Whether they realise it or not, most critics of the sale of P&O, the UK-based port operator that owns five terminals on the US east coast, to Dubai Ports World, owned by the United Arab Emirates government, are just replaying the scene with different accents.
Port security is indeed a critical issue, and it deserves far more attention than it has received from either the Bush administration or Congress. But that is not what all the hoopla is about. After all, DP World would not be responsible for first-order security measures, which would remain with the US Coast Guard, the Department of Homeland Security and local police.
The company already operates other port facilities around the world and has an excellent record. Its senior executives include several US citizens and local US port workers would continue to be unionised Americans. The deal has cleared numerous procedural checks, including scrutiny by the Committee on Foreign Investments in the US, which determines whether such deals might threaten national security.
Nor is the controversy about xenophobia or the fact that P&O is owned by a foreign government—for if those were the chief concerns, the fracas would have a much wider focus. Many US port operations are managed by foreign-owned companies; P&O is already owned by foreigners; and if P&O had not been sold to DP World, it would have been sold to the Singaporean government-owned PSA International.
The causes of the furore are actually quite simple, and ugly. “Port management” sounds like something important, especially in the post-September 11 world, and many think it cannot be left to “wogs”—a reaction that has been encouraged by shameless politicians quick to recognise a chance for cheap demagoguery. The irony here is that in many respects the Bush administration is reaping what it sowed, having previously played politics with homeland security and the war on terrorism, having blurred distinctions in the Muslim world by conflating the unrelated struggles against al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein and having squandered its credibility and authority by its incompetent handling of the Iraq occupation and Hurricane Katrina.
Nevertheless, on this issue, George W. Bush has so far been wiser than his critics. The greatest general challenge of this era is finding ways to reap the many benefits of globalisation while keeping its few actual dangers at bay. America is uniquely poised to succeed at this precisely because its relatively open and meritocratic society responds to people’s behaviour rather than their packaging. The greatest specific challenge, meanwhile, is helping the Muslim world make a successful transition to modernity—something the US has tried, albeit clumsily, to do, not least through close relations with countries such as the rapidly modernising UAE.
The nativist opposition to the port deal, however, cuts directly against these issues, throwing a wrench into the workings of globalisation while declaring that people’s background matters more than anything else.
Mr Bush defended the deal by saying: “I think it sends a terrible signal to friends around the world that it’s okay for a company from one country to manage the port, but not a country that plays by the rules and has got a good track record from another part of the world can’t manage the port.” Whatever the syntax, he could not have been more correct.
Given the situation’s political realities, it makes sense to delay finalising the deal briefly. In fact, the crisis creates a perfect opportunity for the president to educate the Congress and the public on what globalisation means in practice, how it generally benefits Americans and the world at large, and how wrong it is to lump all Arabs, Muslims and Middle Easterners into a scary, undifferentiated mass. The administration could also take lessons about the importance of approaching homeland security seriously and the danger of playing with demagogic fire across the board.
Will any of this learning occur? If you think it will, I have a fantastic port to sell you…