First Published: 2006-02-27

Harboring prejudice and politics: The ‘Dubai ports’ debate

Because it involves an Arab country, members of Congress assume that they won't be called to account for a falsehood. Smearing all things Arab remains the last acceptable form of ethnic bigotry in America, says James Zogby.


Middle East Online

During the past week we witnessed a virtual frenzy with Senators, Congressmen, and then Governors jumping over each other to take the lead in bashing the "Dubai port deal," the United Arab Emirates, or the Bush Administration. It's all being done, critics say, in the name of national security. In reality, what is taking place here is nothing more than crass political posturing and an irresponsible and ill-informed attack on an Arab country that has been a strong ally of the United States.

At its essence, there are three factors that are driving this ruckus: It's an election year, the public has a continued concern about national security, and there's an Arab country involved. Elected officials are preying off of the public's fear by exploiting an Arab "boogeyman." The language they've used is shameful, irresponsible, and downright false.

But in election year politics, it doesn't matter.

Because it involves an Arab country, members of Congress assume that they won't be called to account for a falsehood. Smearing all things Arab remains the last acceptable form of ethnic bigotry in America. As a result of this mindset, the UAE, one of America's closest Mideast allies in the war on terror — a country that has sent troops to fight alongside ours in Afghanistan, complied with all of our antiterrorism initiatives, and provides the largest base port for American military ships — is being called a "rogue government," an "Islamic fascist" state, and "home of terrorists."

In the Mid East, people are scratching their heads. If the UAE which has stuck its neck out to support the US can be treated with such scorn, then, some ask, "what's the point of being a friend of America?" It is ironic and troubling that just a week ago US public diplomacy czar Karen Hughes was in the United Arab Emirates to promote America and this week, UAE and US trade teams enter yet another round in their talks towards establishing a US-UAE free trade agreement. Ms. Hughes must feel like packing it up and going back to Texas. If this anti-UAE campaign succeeds, there is no public diplomacy campaign that can salvage the damage. Arabs, you see — not unlike any other people — react not by what you say about yourself but by how you treat them.

Having said all this, the current exercise in Arab-bashing is, in fact, nothing more than election year politicking at its worst with Democrats feeling that Bush is vulnerable and piling on, and Republicans feeling vulnerable and joining the fray. If it weren't so serious and dangerous, it might be comical. We've seen scenes like this before, as Congressmen and Senators literally trip over each other, risking injury on their way to the microphone, calculating just how outrageous they need to be to guarantee that their sound bite will be the one on the evening news. In this game, facts don't matter. Instead, hyperventilating on their own rhetoric, exaggerations abound.

Especially disturbing in all of this, is that the legitimate issue of port security has been lost in the melee. If Congress really wanted to have a debate about port security and the failings of the current system, they would be talking about increasing funding for hiring more customs officials, beefing up our coast guard presence, and providing additional equipment to screen more of the containers that entire our country. This is what is needed.

None of these issues will be affected, neither adversely nor positively, by the acquisition under consideration. Regardless of what company owns the management of our ports, the security issues remain in the hand of the Department of Homeland Security. Instead of a real debate, we're given scapegoating. Instead of making us more secure, politicians engage in the exercise of making us more isolated in the world and damaging our relationship with an important ally in the Middle East. They ought to be ashamed. They owe an apology not only to the UAE, but to the American people. But since politics and shame are estranged bedfellows, I'm not holding my breath.

For comments or information, contact James Zogby


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