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Forfeiting of America’s fate

Andrew Bacevich on why the United States should run U.S. ports

A Bush administration proposal to turn over the management of six U.S ports to the United Arab Emirates company Dubai Ports World, which is acquiring current manager P&O, a British shipping company, has ignited a political firestorm, with both Democrats and Republicans expressing fears that it will compromise security. Opposition to the deal has put President Bush on the defensive, and his administration now asserts that due diligence has indicated that the new management will not increase the risk of a terrorist attack. BU Today talked about the risks, physical and political, with Andrew Bacevich, a College of Arts and Sciences professor of international relations and the author, most recently, of The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (2005).

       Andrew Bacevich

BU Today: One thing we learned from this imbroglio is that the ports involved in the deal have long been managed by a British company. Why does a commercial enterprise manage U.S. ports rather than the U.S. Coast Guard?

Bacevich: Managing U.S. ports is a massive enterprise that far exceeds the operating capacity of the Coast Guard, a very small service already assigned a wide range of missions. For years, both before and after 9/11, the Coast Guard has been neglected and underfunded. The status of the Coast Guard is one indication of how unserious federal authorities have been about homeland security.

What role does the port management company play in maintaining national security?

Trade creates opportunities for smuggling. Unless carefully monitored, the flow of goods through American ports can allow criminal elements — to include violent Islamic radicals — to introduce into the United States materials useful to their illicit activities. To cite obvious examples: weapons, explosive materials, or chemical and biological agents. Any company managing the port will necessarily have a role in screening containers in order to identify such contraband.

What are the national security implications of allowing ports to be managed by a company based in Dubai instead of a British company?

It all depends on the competence and trustworthiness of those running the company. The fact that P&O is British-owned in no way guarantees that it has been giving adequate attention to security in U.S. ports.

Why is the British company selling out to the Dubai-based company?

I don’t know — presumably because it sees some economic advantage in doing so. The British company almost certainly made its decision based strictly on economic grounds, and that ought to tell you something about how serious it is about security in the first place.

What are the political advantages, if any, to the United States of having a U.S. company manage its ports instead of a foreign company?

The political issue is a phony one — shameless politicians are using this issue as a way of proclaiming their commitment to security. But they dodge the larger questions. What would benefit U.S. security would be to have the United States assume responsibility for managing its own affairs — with the control of U.S. ports being just one example. But for us to do so would be to call into question a host of lucrative arrangements related to the “globalization” project. So we will continue down the road of forfeiting control of our own fate. U.S. grand strategy aims to pacify the unruly parts of the world, e.g., the Middle East, in order to maintain an open global economic order. That strategy is costing us dearly and is unlikely to work.