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"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

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Wednesday, 22 February 2006
Second Thoughts: Hard A-Port, Point Ho!
Topic: Reality-Based Woes

Second Thoughts: Hard A-Port, Point Ho!

Wednesday, February 22nd, the day after the news broke that the government was allowing port operations at six major US ports to be managed by a state-owned company from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, with its history of connections to the Taliban and al Qaeda and of trafficking in nuclear bits and pieces going to bad folks who shouldn't have them, more odd details emerged. As reported here (and all over) - "President Bush was unaware of the pending sale of shipping operations at six major U.S. seaports to a state-owned business in the United Arab Emirates until the deal already had been approved by his administration, the White House said Wednesday."

What? He didn't know?

So it wasn't only the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and all the Republican congressmen and senators who "carried the water" for the president, defending all he does (the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court excepted), who didn't know. Even the president had just found out what the Treasury Secretary John Snow's committee on foreign investments approved, a committee formed in the seventies with the purpose to encourage such investments, chaired by the former head of the transportation firm CSX that was sold to state-owned company from Dubai for a few billion after he left.

What does that make the president - uninformed but defiant anyway?

That late news led to comments like this - "Ok Congress didn't know, Bush didn't know, the Joint Chiefs didn't know, Rumsfeld didn't know. Who the hell is running our government? This is a total lack of oversight or a major lie. The GOP congressional hearings on this subject should get really interesting."

Our friend the high-powered Wall Street attorney, commented, while stuck in traffic at the Holland Tunnel waiting to get out city, that this was an odd thing - one supposed virtue of the man as he ran for president was that he would run the country like a business. Bush had an MBA and would be the first real CEO president, running the national like a finely-tuned prosperous corporation (don't think about Arbusto Oil or the Texas Rangers). Cheney would be his COO, the operations officer implementing the "vision" of the chief executive officer. But this? Our friend, whose expertise is corporate contract law, muttered that in most large corporations the staff comes up with ideas, concepts, plans - and the CEO considers them all and approves what seems best and matches his vision. Our friend sees here stuff is just done, and the staff tells the CEO what's happening after they've launched whatever it is into action. This takes trusting your staff to a new level. On the other hand, in the ongoing Enron trial this seems to be one line of defense that Key Lay, another Texas CEO, is using - the senior staff was acting without authority and he himself did nothing wrong. His only fault was trusting them too much, and how can you punish someone for trusting others?

But its seems there's lots that the president just doesn't know. Maybe too much, as noted here -
Most recently, he was unaware of Jack Abramoff until his indictment.

He was unaware that mikes were still on after ushering press out of the room to speak to lawmakers.

He was unaware of the fact that Harriet Miers would displease many in his own party.

He was unaware last year that his own FEMA director no longer worked for him.

He was unaware of the danger of Katrina. He was unaware of the problem until the next day. Soon, the administration was claiming that nobody could have predicted the leveling of an American city by levee damage.

Despite one notable Presidential Daily Briefing to the contrary, he was unaware of any specific threat to the nation by Al Qaeda before 9/11. Soon, the administration would claim that only unaware Republicans could deal with homeland security competently.

He was unaware, of course, of any pressing need to stop reading My Pet Goat immediately after hearing the news that the United States was under attack.

He was even unaware that he was a polarizing figure in the country as late as 2004.
There's a pattern?

This is a somewhat detached management style - hold the "big vision" and articulate it in undemanding terms like a simple-minded third grader, appoint contributors and key friends to critical positions, let them do what they will without judging what's really a good thing to do, and defend them even if what they've done is bone-headed. It's hard to think of successful corporation that uses that model, other than Enron before the bankruptcy.

So we have this port thing with everyone hopping mad, and those congressional hearings looming next month, as Senator Norm Coleman is disconcerted -
"I have grave concerns both about the sale of major U.S. ports to a United Arab Emirates company, Dubai Ports World, and the process by which that sale was approved," Coleman said in a prepared statement. "The sale must be held up so Congress can fully review its national security implications."

Coleman, a Minnesota Republican, held a hearing on port security last year before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which he chairs. That hearing focused on Government Accountability Office reports that found flaws in two Customs and Border Protection programs.

Coleman said he would request all documents related to the sale of the ports. He added in an interview that he would support legislation to block the deal until Congress has a chance to review it.
He's not the only one upset, as in this letter to the president (PDF format) from Republican congresswoman Sue Myrick of North Carolina in regard to the "sale" of the ports - "...just say NO - HELL NO!" It's one sentence long and she released it to the press.

Well, any number of commentators who belong to the Cult of Bush - it may look wrong and actually be illegal, but if Bush does it you have to trust him as his motives are pure and he never wavers - are pointing to this Wall Street Journal editorial here - "So far, none of the critics have provided any evidence that the Administration hasn't done its due diligence. The deal has been blessed by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a multi-agency panel that includes representatives from the departments of Treasury, Defense and Homeland Security."

Bush trusted them, so we should?

Wouldn't normal practice be for this committee to recommend this and ask the CEO to approve? It seems, however, that everyone in the organization knows this CEO doesn't like detail. You wouldn't want to make him angry by troubling him with minor stuff. But then, if anyone on the committee had a sense that this could be political dynamite, they might have given him a heads-up, just so he knew they'd be some work ahead to calm the waters.

There are some odd management dynamics at play here. He doesn't tell them what to do and they don't tell him what they've done. Then he blusters and says this is all fine and dares those who are surprised to defy him. The word "dysfunctional" comes to mind here, in an organizational sense.

Do you suppose anyone told him his war seems to have, on Wednesday, February 22nd, finally failed - the sectarian civil war there has begun in earnest, as Sunni guys dressed in official-looking commando uniforms managed to blow up the Shiite al-Askari shrine in Samarra, the one with the big gold dome. This is a big deal, with the holy graves and all - kind of like mad Lutherans blowing up Saint Peters in Rome, instead of nailing things to doors.

Briefly this from Dan Murphy of the Christian Science Monitor -
As citizens deserted the streets of Baghdad in the wake of the attack, many said they feared this could be a seminal moment in Iraq's low-intensity civil war.

"The war could really be on now,'' says Abu Hassan, a Shiite street peddler who declined to give his full name. "This is something greater and more symbolic than attacks on people. This is a strike at who we are."

... "This could be a tipping point,'' says Juan Cole, a historian of Shiite Islam at the University of Michigan. "At some point, the Shiite street is going to be so fed up that they're not going to listen any more to calls for restraint."
What happens next? Some bullet points from the BBC here -
• In Baghdad, a Sunni mosque in Baladiya district is raked with gunfire, while black-clad militiamen of the Shia Mehdi Army demonstrate in Sadr City; six Sunnis die in violence

• In Basra, gunmen attack Sunni mosques and exchange fire with guards at an office of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party

• Businesses shut down in Najaf and about 1,000 march through the streets, waving flags and shouting slogans
Markets, shops and stalls close in Diwaniya, AP says. A Mehdi Army militiaman is killed in clashes after gunmen from the faction attack Sunni houses, Reuters news agency reports

• About 3,000 people demonstrate in the Shia city of Kut, chanting anti-American and anti-Israeli slogans and burning US and Israeli flags, AP says.
And a detail in the Washington Post account here notes Iran is saying that American and Israeli forces are to blame for the bombing. And this melds with the cartoon wars, as there are reports that some nut cases are saying the Danes were behind the bombing of the Shiite al-Askari shrine in Samarra. Great.

The UN - and we have little use for them - is trying to get the various Shiite and Sunni leaders to stop right now and talk with each other - the news story is here and quotes our CEO president - "Violence will only contribute to what the terrorists sought to achieve."

Who knows what that means? The layers of irony are deep. What was that war about? He's on a "just say no to violence" kick now? The man can be confusing.

But it seems someone told him his war wasn't going well.

It's like this. Set some "transformative event" in motion and you never know what you're going to get. Call it "extreme delegation" - don't consider all possible consequences, discard the worst-case scenarios, disregard what's in the risks-assumptions tables, blow off the resource allocation analyses, do no if-then planning. And develop a cost-benefit decision matrix based on simple-minded idealism, not on real costs and realistic outcomes, but on what you wish were so. Delegate (give them their disassembled nation) and hope for the best.

Many of us know the basic management tools. Project planning is a pain in the ass. But you do it. You have to. What made these guys exempt from reality?

Ah well, the final insult is that Bill O'Reilly of Fox News, of all people, is now saying get us out Iraq as soon as possible. No kidding. See this. Three months ago he was calling those advocating immediate withdrawal from Iraq "pinheads" and compared them to Hitler appeasers. Now he's ticked.

Lyndon Johnson lost Walter Cronkite of CBS, and muttered to himself that it was all over. Vietnam was lost. And it was, even if it took years to wind down. George Bush has lost Bill O'Reilly of Fox News. What is he muttering to himself?

But O'Reilly is, if nothing else, mercurial, and may change his mind again. Who knows? The fifty-five percent of the country who now think the war is pointless may not flip back so easily, and even if our ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, has said we'll stop all aid if this gets any worse (here) - and we all see where this is going. Who wants to go there? "The volatility of the political process was exacerbated Monday by suggestions from Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador to Iraq, that the United States might decrease financial help to a government that excluded some sects and ethnic groups." We don't have a dog in this hunt.

Of course we removed the tyrant who held things together with terror, mass murder, and the brutal exclusion of the majority Shiites. We just laid the groundwork for a civil war based on religious fanaticism (as an outside sees it). Do we want to take sides regarding who is right about the true son of the Prophet Mohammed? Maybe we really should have built those risks-assumptions tables. Say, what did happen to Yugoslavia after Tito was gone?

But the port thing may be a red-herring, not a big deal, just a chance for lots of politicians to do a lot of posturing. Who really cares about protecting our country from the bad guys? Ah, it seems it isn't Bush. Yes, it is! No, he's giving away the ports to our enemies! No, he isn't!

Whatever.

Kevin Drum in the Washington Monthly untangles things quite a bit here, first addressing the issue that Dubai Ports World (DPW) isn't a private company, it's a state-owned company. Yeah, so?

Drum points to this in the Financial Times explaining state-owned companies already operate terminals here - China Shipping at the Port of Los Angeles and APL (owned by Singapore's state-owned NOL) in Oakland. From the Financial Times - "The US container port industry would be unworkable without companies controlled by foreign governments." And Drum notes "DPW and Singapore's state-owned PSA are the third and fourth largest port operators in the world, and China's Hutchison Ports already refuses to invest in the US. If all of these firms are shut out of the country, we lose access to some of the best and most efficient port operators in the world."

Oh. That.

And Drum adds, "encouraging the xenophobic jingoism that's driving this controversy is a little too much for me. Unless there are serious substantive reasons to oppose this deal, I'm not willing to jump on the bandwagon solely because it's an opportunity for some righteous Bush bashing."

You might want to check out his quotes from five different port operators who wonder what all the fuss is about. The problem is that this is just the nature of the shipping business.

Dock workers themselves would continue to be American union members, and port security would continue to be provided by the Coast Guard and Customs.
In the end, there's nothing left to this controversy except the raw question of whether the government of the United Arab Emirates is sympathetic to international terrorism and therefore likely to implement policies that would make it easier for al-Qaeda to infiltrate ports in the US - something most analysts seem to think is pretty far-fetched. God knows I wouldn't mind some congressional oversight on this question, especially if it prompted some serious action on actual port security, but if turns out that the UAE is really untrustworthy then I'd like to find someplace else for the Navy to park their ships too. The port of Dubai is the busiest port of call for the United States Navy outside the continental United States.

In the absence of serious evidence of untrustworthiness, though, I'd prefer to walk the liberal internationalism walk instead of jumping ship for short term political gain. I've said before that engaging seriously with the Arab world is the best way of fighting terrorism, and I meant it. This is a chance to do exactly that.

... But the whole thing feeds on a mindless anti-Arab jingoism that's genuinely dangerous, and that's why I'm not joining the fun unless I hear some really good reasons for doing so. As liberals, we're either serious about engaging with the Muslim world in a sensible, non-hysterical way or we're not. Which is it?
Well, logic sometimes works wonders. This seems to be more a chance for politicians to "make a statement" on how very, very, very seriously they take our security. It's a politically useful controversy.

Of course, you might, if you're really into realty and logic, read this, Daniel Engber in the slate.com "Explainer" series, well, explaining what a "port operator" does - gets cargo containers off of ships and puts them onto trucks or trains and does the paperwork to get incoming shipments through customs, and uses its computer system to help connect the goods with potential recipients, under tight specific contracts with the local government (the public port authority) that approves and monitors the operator's security plan. It's kind of boring, but the link to the computerized yard management system "to help each trucker connect with his payload" might interest some systems folks.

No one is "selling the ports" and giving the bad guys control of our lives.

So the controversy may resolve to how this was handled, not the deal, which may be safe.

And that means it's a management issue.

How is our CEO running things? He works for us, and we need to decide if he's running the joint effectively, or if he's the one running it at all.

There's this from Andrew Sullivan -
I'm subscriber to the screw-up view of history, so I doubt if there's some Rovian double-bluff here. What's undeniable is that this administration has, for some time, been remarkably obtuse, flat-footed and incompetent, even by its own extremely low standards. It doesn't take a genius to see a headline like "Port To Be Run By 9/11 Country" will do great damage. But no one saw it coming; the Congress wasn't adequately briefed; the middle class was not prepared. It's also clear that whatever leverage this president had over his own party, it has all but evaporated these past couple of months. They're not afraid of him; and pretty soon, a whole bunch will be running against him. This incident, Bush's rash and stupid veto threat, and the blithe way in which much of the GOP is now ignoring or scorning him, is a sign of how much oomph is left in this administration. Not much.
And there are the diplomatic issues.

James K. Glassman here -
"Dubai - I don't have to tell you - is an Arab nation. Yes, two of the 9/11 hijackers were citizens of the UAE, but, then again, as Ivan Eland of the Independent Institute notes, Richard Reid, the attempted "shoe bomber," was a British citizen, and Jose Padilla, among others, is an American citizen (as was Timothy McVeigh). The UAE has been a staunch ally in the war on terror, training security forces in Iraq and helping to cut off the flow of money to al Qaeda.

Isn't this precisely what the United States preaches? Don't we want places like Dubai to fight terror and to grow, to invest, to buy, to trade, to adopt Western commercial practices, to expose themselves to the rest of the world and thus become tolerant and moderate?"
In the conservative National Review there's this -
It is understandable that American politicians would want to seek clarifications, safeguards, and accountability on the DP World deal in honor of all those who were mercilessly murdered on that tragic September morning. But the best way to honor their memories is to use the Dubai deal as a model to build effective bridges to the Arab and Muslim world - as we did in Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan - instead of erecting barriers that reveal America's paranoia and fear about some Islamist doomsday scenario no one can predict, all the while alienating the very people we need to help raise up the Muslim world's disaffected so they are not so desperate to tear us down.
And one of Andrew Sullivan's readers, when Sullivan pointed to that, give us this -
I'm shocked you find that article from the National Review folks persuasive in any way. Sure, they talk about using the Dubai Port deal as a "model to build effective bridges to the Arab and Muslim world" ... but come on ... that must be the biggest joke I've ever read. If they truly believed building bridges to the Muslim and Arab world was important they wouldn't be so gung-ho and supportive of this administrations policies of torture, degradation and abuse of Muslim and Arab citizens. In fact, I'm shocked that you of all people didn't call them on it. Any effective bridges that are going to be built between America and Muslim world are going to start with our policies in Iraq ... not with some billion dollar company owned by UAE.
Ah, the idea is to show good will it might be nice to stop with the other stuff and not worry about how to sell this port deal to the posturing politicians and the panicked masses.

But that other stuff isn't going to stop. And the civil war is on in Iraq, and our CEO is out of the loop.

Perhaps the Board of Directors should form a search committee for a new CEO or something.

Posted by Alan at 22:45 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 22 February 2006 22:54 PST home

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