Friday, February 24, 2006

Krauthammer on P&O Steam Nav. Co.

Krauthammer couldn't find a more debatable lead: "If only Churchill were alive today, none of this would be happening." Or craft a more inscrutable follow-up: "The proud imperialist would have taken care that the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., chartered in 1840 by Victoria ("by the grace of God . . . Queen defender of the faith" on "this thirty first day of December in the fourth year of our reign"), would still be serving afternoon tea and crumpets on some immaculate Jewel-in-the-Crown cricket pitch in Ceylon."

Krauthammer raises the "obvious question of whether we want our ports, through which a nuclear bomb could come, handled by a country two of whose nationals flew into the South Tower on Sept. 11...." Never mind that if terrorists wanted to smuggle an awful weapon into the U.S., they would infiltrate the company that managed the port where the weapon was loaded, not where it was never to be unloaded.

According to Krauthammer, "an Arab-run company, heavily staffed with Arab employees, is more likely to be infiltrated by terrorists who might want to smuggle an awful weapon into our ports." Never mind that the Arab Emirates' intelligence assets are much better-suited than any American or British company, or either intelligence service, to vet Middle Eastern employees and to uncover terrorist plots of Middle Eastern origin.

Krauthammer allows that the government of the UAE, "which has been pro-American and a reasonably good ally in the war on terrorism," is unlike to offer its "cooperation" in a terrorist attack on American ports. Never mind that if they were of a mind to cooperate in such an attack, they wouldn't spend a fortune buying the contracts to manage the ports they wanted to blow up, just to make sure that their fingerprints were all over the attack.

But the "greater and more immediate danger," according to Krauthammer, is not Arab incompetents or idiots, but Arab sinistry and American naivete. He worries that P&O "will ... become privy to information about security," and "the holes in our security operations," and its employees might "pass this invaluable knowledge on to al-Qaeda types." I'll tell you a secret if you promise not to tell any al-Qaeda types: The Customs Service physically inspects two percent of imported cargo. The hole is bigger than the fabric of our port security operations, and it can't be plugged by inspecting containers berthed in New York Harbor. Whoever is pulling the trigger (likely by satellite phone from a cafe in Dubai) isn't going to have second cup of coffee while he waits for U.S. Customs to finish searching the ship after it docks.

Krauthammer allows that he can "sympathize with the President's stubborness," as though we would be anything but shocked if, just once, he did not sympathize with this particularly stubborn President. But this has nothing to do with the prospect of humiliating a moderate Middle Eastern ally, as Krauthammer imagines. The UAE would flip those six American port management contracts in a New York minute for a 10% profit. Bush is sticking to the deal for the same reason he let it happen, and for the same reason he is preposterously pretending no one told him about it -- it is sound strategy to give UAE a stake in the security of American ports because its intelligence service is uniquely capable of doing something about it.

Krauthammer bemoans the lack of "very good options." If the options were really limited to the mollification of an ally and the protection of national security, one would expect Krauthammer to be less sanguine about settling for the option that is "not nearly as clean as the Harriet Miers exit." Good Lord. Having bowed to Republican pressure to pull the nomination because she wasn't qualified to hold one vote on the Supreme Court, he left her in charge of the White Counsel's Office. Perhaps Krauthammer would be happier if Bush killed the P&O contract, and put them in charge of his administration's Middle Eastern trade policy.

Krauthammer rues the day when "Britannia stopped ruling the waves and it all fell to us," with the world-weary resignation of a nostalgic anglophile; but if Churchill were alive today, he'd be banking the President's appreciation for his help brokering the deal.