- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Three events last week brought into stark perspective the limits on the reach and grasp of our government in dealing with vital, tough issues. First was the brouhaha over the pending sale of the P&O; Steamship Navigation company’s management contracts for six major U.S. ports to Dubai Ports World, owned by the United Arab Emirates. Second was the White House’s release of “The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina — Lessons Learned.” And third was the bombing of the Shi’ite Golden Mosque in Samarra, Iraq.

That an Arab state could take over the management of six major U.S. ports struck many Americans as bizarre. After nearly four-and-a-half years into the global war on terror against radical Islam, did “outsourcing” port security to a state that was both Arab and Islamic and allegedly had links with the September 11 attacks, as well as to al Qaeda, make sense?

Of course, only a handful of Americans knew about CFIUS and the Exxon-Florio Act of 1988 that regulated sale of U.S. companies to foreign ownership with potential national security consequences, particularly regarding sensitive technologies. CFIUS is the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, consisting of 12 major departments of government concerned with national security. Hence, when the sale was made public, Congress was besieged with e-mails and phone calls in protest.

While some worry that a foreign-owned entity in the United States could be blackmailed or manipulated by terrorists to launch an attack here, why do port-security experts disagree? Port security rests with the U.S. Coast Guard and Customs, as well as the respective port authorities and local police forces. Indeed, should the deal go through, security possibly could be enhanced through greater scrutiny both of and by Dubai Ports World, as well as better U.S. access into the global network already managed by that firm.

Unfortunately, the initially emotional and visceral reactions by Republicans and Democrats and the politically tone-deaf manner in which the administration vetted the sale have put both ends of Capitol Hill on an unnecessary collision course. Predictably, the reaction abroad will do further damage to an already tattered image of Uncle Sam. The larger and ungrasped issue, of course, is how to reduce the vulnerability not only of ports but also other critical parts of our infrastructure irrespective of ownership. Who is working on that?

Following the devastating critique of the response to Katrina released by the House, the administration offered its lessons-learned report. The issues are also simple. First, the fundamental problem is ill-defined authority, responsibility and accountability. In other words, who is in charge, what is being done to correct these deficiencies and who will ensure that these tasks are accomplished? Second, why did it take a disaster for the administration to evaluate the progress of the Homeland Security Department given that anyone with even cursory knowledge understood the difficulties of merging 170,000 disparate bodies into a functioning single organization? No easy answers there, either.

Third was the destruction of the Golden Dome mosque. Reports of a full civil war in Iraq along the lines of Lebanon or the former Yugoslavia may be premature. This may not be Fort Sumter circa 1861, but Iraq is fast approaching that point. Had the target been in Najaf, the most holy of Shi’ite cities, then the violence could have been uncontainable. Yet, this attack was both predictable and predicted as a means to split the Shi’ite-Sunni sects. And it was tragically effective.

Unfortunately, the reach of American and Iraqi power and influence was insufficient to prevent this attack, as well as to beat back the insurgency. Iraq has still not formed a new government even though elections were completed nearly three months ago, and a careful inspection of the progress in making the key ministries — defense and interior — into capable and honest government agencies would probably resemble the critique of the response to Hurricane Katrina. Does the administration grasp this, and, if so, what it is doing to remedy these more obvious problems?

Three strands run through each of these events. First, there is a noticeable absence of fact and understanding. One can have different opinions. But governing based on differing facts does not work. Second, the Bush administration has too long governed in splendid isolation, convinced of the correctness of its policies. That is one reason why so many members of Congress, angry about an absence of consultation, were quick to join the critics of the Dubai Ports World sale. Third, there still is no mechanism for ensuring closer cooperation and coordination between Congress and the White House while keeping the public informed on these important issues.

Unless both our reach and grasp can be extended, these stories will be joined by others. And that news will not always be good.

Harlan Ullman is a columnist for The Washington Times. His next book, “America’s Promise Restored — Keeping Culture, Crusade and Partisanship from Wrecking the Nation,” will be published this spring.

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