The Clintons on Dubai

While Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was ripping President Bush’s handling of American ports management, Bill Clinton was pushing for one of his favorite White House aides to be hired to defend the deal. The former president proposed to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) his onetime press secretary, Joe Lockhart, as Washington spokesman for the UAE-owned company, Dubai Ports World.

The Lockhart deal was never consummated. But the spectacle of the two Clintons going in opposite directions on the UAE port-management question exposed a Democratic fault line. Widespread public reaction against outsourcing control of the ports was seen by Sen. Clinton and other prominent Democrats as a chance to outflank the Republicans on homeland security in this year’s elections. Behind the scenes, however, Democrats aligned with the Clinton family were lobbying for the UAE.

The lineup over the DP World raises questions about how Bill Clinton’s free and easy political manner will impact his wife’s prospective presidential campaign for 2008. Highly disciplined Hillary Clinton plays politics by the numbers, following a carefully plotted strategy. Her husband’s freewheeling, intuitive style was typified when he tried to secure a well-paid assignment for his friend and valued aide, Joe Lockhart, who now heads a Washington-based media firm.

According to well-placed UAE sources, the former president made the suggestion at the very highest level of the oil-rich state. The relationship between him and the UAE is far from casual. The sheikdom has contributed to the Clinton Presidential Library, and brought Clinton to Dubai in 2002 and 2005 for highly paid speeches (reportedly at $300,000 apiece). He was there in 2003 to announce a scholarship program for American students traveling to Dubai.

Certainly, the emirs would pay the closest attention to any request from the former president. Lockhart did confer with DP World officials, but they failed to reach agreement. The UAE sources said that Lockhart’s asking price was much too high.

Lockhart did not flatly deny to me that Clinton had made a pitch for him, but instead said he did not know whether the former president was involved. Lockhart said he was recommended by another Clintonite: Carol Browner, the former Environmental Protection Agency chief and now a principal in the Albright Group lobbying firm. Headed by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the company is representing DP World. Lockhart told me "money was not the problem" as he turned down the offer.

UAE sources, contending that Lockhart priced himself out of the market, asserted there was no question but that Clinton had intervened on his behalf and added it was not possible that Lockhart had not known about his former chief’s intervention. When I sought comment from Clinton, his press spokesman, Jay Carson, said: "I don’t know for sure, but I don’t know him to generate employment even for someone he likes and admires as much as Joe Lockhart."

While Lockhart may have been a bridge too far for DP World, the UAE has reached out to high-priced Washington lobbyists on both sides of the aisle (including Republicans Bob Dole and Vin Weber). Leading the way in putting together the port deal was Jonathan Winer, a leading Democratic lobbyist who spent 10 years as Sen. John Kerry’s aide. Winer’s associate at the Alston & Bird law firm supporting DP World is Kathryn Marks, who was policy director for then Sen. John Edwards. Former Democratic Rep. Tom Downey, chairman of his own lobbying firm, is also on the Dubai team.

In contrast to Democratic operatives working behind closed doors are Democratic lawmakers attacking the ports deal in the open. Speaking to the Jewish Community Relations Council at Manhattan’s 92nd Street YMCA on Sunday, Sen. Clinton went beyond questions of homeland security. She called the Dubai deal "emblematic of a larger problem" of ceding "some of our fiscal sovereignty."

Does that put the Clintons on a collision course? Not exactly. Having failed privately to hook up Lockhart with DP World, the former president publicly turned on his old friends from the UAE last Friday in a speech at Auckland, New Zealand. DP World, he said, "is from UAE, where some of the money from 9/11 was laundered." If Democrats in general are divided publicly and privately on this issue, so is Bill Clinton as an individual.