Protectionism By Another Name

I returned, last week from having led a mission to Israel for the Israeli Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Trade with leading executives of U.S. financial services industry for the purpose of discussing how to increase U.S. investments and business opportunities in Israel. By the way, it’s not the topic of this column but of a future column.

While there, I was able to observe firsthand, Thomas Friedman’s keen observation that the world is rapidly "flattening." Not only is economic liberalization taking place in Israel, but thanks to "qualified industrial zones" a.k.a. free-trade zones, there is an increase in commerce, trade and job opportunities between moderate Arab states and Israel as never before. Those trade zones, in my opinion, are enhancing the chances for dialogue, understanding and ultimately, more peaceful and diplomatic solutions to age-old prejudices, resentments and feuds.

Congenital optimist that I am, it was disappointing to come back to the states to witness the pessimism, cynicism and hypocrisy of some of those on the left and right who are using a rather straightforward, commercial port operations contract to rant against a friendly nation, the United Arab Emirates, that chose, post 9/11, to be with the West, (and the U.S.) in the war on terror.

As I’ve quoted William F. Buckley more than once, who said prophetically, "Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue" well let me observe unfortunately, vice appears to be winning, at least in this political climate.

The biggest canard of all was that President George W. Bush was "outsourcing our port security to an Arab country", not withstanding it’s a management contract, and that port security will still be in the hands of the U.S. Coast Guard and Department of Homeland Security. Incidentally this is no different than 80 percent of U.S. ports now managed by companies based in China, Singapore, Denmark and Hong Kong.

My financial services mission, co-sponsored by the American-Israel Friendship League, of which I’ve been on the board for about 25 years, has never caused me problems with a single Arab nation from Jordan and Kuwait, to Egypt, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, as I’ve traveled freely throughout the Persian Gulf making many new friends for myself and hopefully my own country.

I’m involved in companies doing business worldwide and I’ve done business in the Middle East. Indeed, I would be honored to do so again if the right opportunity presented itself.

I like to think of myself as a classical 18th century liberal on democracy, trade, human and civil rights, as well as in opening minds to the culture and history of those who for so long, have been denied a place at the table of international respect, diplomacy and reconciliation.

The "flap" over the United Arab Emirates was particularly distasteful to me because having traveled there, I have seen firsthand the liberalization taking place in the Arabian Gulf. Are there problems and challenges? Yes, of course, but the United Arab Emirates is unambiguous in their alliance with the U.S. in the war on terror and desires to trade and invest in the West.

I’m glad the president – and I’m especially pleased that Dubai Port World – has asked for a 45-day hiatus to review the conditions and to answer the legitimate questions that have arisen, while bringing out the facts surrounding our seaport security. I, like most, think we need to do more and spend more in the protection of our ports, and particularly to recognize that security begins overseas. And by the way, Dubai Port World was the first to sign onto our container security initiative, which seeks to inspect cargo in foreign ports. The United Arab Emirates has assisted in training security forces in Iraq, and at home it has worked hard to stem terrorist financing and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The United Arab Emirates leaders are as much an al-Qaida target as Tony Blair and they have troops assisting us in Afghanistan, as The Wall Street Journal editorialized.

Gen. Tommy Franks said recently, "the Emirates is indispensable to our security in the Middle East and a valued ally." We use their ports and air bases, and let me remind the xenophobes, it’s not particularly easy to be a friend of the U.S.A. in that region of the world. We need all the friends we can make.

To turn down this contract would further weaken our relationships with moderate Arab allies and I believe ultimately, it would weaken our own national security and our chances for peace and liberalization throughout the Middle East and Africa. We live in a world of increasing liberal flows of capital and trade and the Dubai Port World contract is a good example of the U.S reflecting our belief that world trade can help lead to a more peaceful world.