- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 8, 2006

As a frequent visitor to the United Arab Emirates, it is painful to see people undeservedly smeared with the terrorist brush. The tough neighborhood they live in dictates certain built-in restraints and from time to time the UAE political leadership has been a little slow on the up-take. But the UAE is not a cesspool of terrorists and anti-Americanism.

In 1991, a UAE tank battalion fought its way, shoulder to shoulder with the United States Marines, up the Coast Highway to help liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s looters. There are veterans of that engagement who are justly proud of their service and will tell you about it if asked.

The real danger to all of us from the ports deal lies in very real potential for terrorist extortion directed at Dubai Ports World (DPW) personnel. Not to be over dramatic, but if the deal goes forward, inevitably someone will approach a DPW official along the following lines: “This is a picture of your daughter at school in England and we would like .. .” Fanciful speculation? No. That’s the real world of the Middle East today.

Consider the hotel wedding bombing in Amman, Jordan, last year. Contrary to what was reported, the Radisson SAS hotel chain is Scandinavian- not American-owned. The hotel itself is owned by a very wealthy local Jordanian family and the homicide bomb that murdered and maimed dozens of innocent women and children was an unmistakable message to all wealthy families of the Middle East: Pay up the next time the al Qaeda fund-raisers call.

The DPW-U.S. ports deal would be a juicy target for al Qaeda. A multibillion-dollar project of this nature would mean lots of U.S. visas for DPW personnel and subcontractors, lots of valuable information to be collected and lots of opportunities to insert a suicide team where it could do the most damage.

Visas lead to work permits, drivers’ licenses and all the other identity-establishing documents of U.S. residency. Getting “inside the other guy’s perimeter” is always a major goal for an opponent. Undoubtedly, al Qaeda operatives are poring over DPW personnel lists right now, looking for vulnerabilities.

We are at this point because of a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances and events. The United Emirates, like the United States and other federal systems contains people with differing experiences and interests. The political elite of Abu Dhabi, the largest and wealthiest of the Emirates, is from the desert oasis of Al Ain where warfare and defense issues are ingrained.

Dubai has been a commercial and trading center for hundreds of years. It seems probable the Dubai officials were just looking for a good investment and the Abu Dhabi leadership might not have been completely in the loop. Clearly nobody looked very far down the road on this one.

On the U.S. side, both President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were both fliers and do not have the instinct for perimeter security that they might have if they had served in the infantry or intelligence.

Below their levels, the administration is overwhelmingly corporate to the point that neither our security nor the real world of the Middle East ever hit the radar screen.

It’s not going to be easy to walk this one back. From personal experience, it’s clear Sheikh Muhammed, Abu Dhabi crown prince (and the UAE president’s de-facto executive officer) does not like to lose and doesn’t suffer fools gladly.

The Bush administration and its enemies are in a total take-no-prisoners mode. On top of other recent problems, it will be very hard for the administration to change course, knowing the “Keystone Cops” charge will be thrown at them.

But walking it back, gently, is what needs to happen. It is a bad deal for the UAE because it exposes Dubai Ports World officials and their families to unwanted attention from al Qaeda and its allies. And, it’s a very bad precedent for the United States from a security standpoint.

The UAE political leadership needs to ignore the siren songs from the American fixers and cut its losses. If the UAE chooses to blame this on the Americans, so be it.

In a slightly perverse sense, this is an opportunity for President Bush to make the necessary personnel and administrative changes the country needs.

Even after everything that has transpired since September 11, 2001, and Hurricane Katrina, American perimeter security is still a disaster zone of cronyism and incompetence. That the CFIUS Committee didn’t think the ports deal was even worthy of briefing Cabinet officials is proof enough that stupidity and willful blindness needs to be addressed at a higher level.

William C. Triplett II is the former chief Republican counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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