President Bush is on the defensive on national security for the first time in his presidency over his administration’s decision to approve a Middle Eastern company’s bid to manage U.S. ports, leaving Democrats and Republicans all running to his right on the issue.
Republicans are openly talking about bills to halt the deal and sound eager to override a threatened presidential veto, while Democrats say the administration’s decision cuts deeply into Mr. Bush’s national security credentials.
Democrats even turned around White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove’s barb last month that they have a “pre-9/11 view of the world.”
“To paraphrase Karl Rove, Democrats and Republicans have fundamentally different views on national security,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Bill Burton. “For example, Republicans think we should outsource national security to a state used by 9/11 hijackers as an operational and financial base. Democrats think we should not.”
In the Patriot Act and NSA wiretap fights, some Republicans split from Mr. Bush, but the president was to their right on the security questions involved in those issues.
This time is different, and it comes as a surprise to House Republicans who two weeks ago heard Mr. Bush tell them at a retreat that terrorism is always on his mind.
“I wake up every morning thinking about a future attack, and therefore, a lot of my thinking, and a lot of the decisions I make are based upon the attack that hurt us,” Mr. Bush said.
Some of those in attendance said they can’t square that statement with the ports decision.
“It doesn’t jibe with it; that’s what’s confusing to everybody,” said Rep. Sue Myrick, North Carolina Republican. “I look at us trying to protect us and use every opportunity to protect us. They say we’re doing security on the ports, well, what security?”
The administration has approved the sale of a British company that manages operations at six U.S. ports to Dubai Ports World, a state-run company from the United Arab Emirates, after securing agreements from the company on security matters.
The White House says politics never entered into the matter.
“The president doesn’t view it as a political issue, the president views it as the right principle and the right policy,” said White House press secretary Scott McClellan.
“I don’t think anybody during this process was looking at it in any way other than the national security standpoint because that’s what they’re charged with doing under this process that was mandated by Congress,” Mr. McClellan said.
Frank J. Gaffney Jr., president of the Center for Security Policy and a conservative adviser to Republicans on national security issues, said Mr. Bush will have to relent on his stance, but in the meantime he will suffer political damage.
“It’s going to be at some cost to the president, and unfortunately that cost is only going to grow as he tries, as he did with Harriet Miers, to hang in there,” Mr. Gaffney said.
He also panned Mr. Bush’s veto threat.
“It reminds me of that old story of the guy holding the gun to his head saying, ‘If you come one step closer, I’ll pull the trigger,’ ” he said.
For Democrats, Mr. Bush has played right into an issue they have talked about for years. Sen. John Kerry made the lack of port security a common theme of his failed presidential campaign against Mr. Bush in 2004, and congressional Democrats consistently try to boost spending on screening cargo.
“The president likes to say that security is his top priority. It’s time for him to put his personal attention and time into turning that rhetoric into reality,” said Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat.
Meanwhile, Republican candidates running in November’s congressional elections, such as two of the Republicans seeking Tennessee’s open Senate seat, and Max Burns, who is seeking a House seat from Georgia, also distanced themselves from the deal.
“I don’t understand how it can be in the best interests of our national security to have a foreign firm, especially when there is suspicion of having ties with terrorist organizations, running our ports,” Mr. Burns said.
Just as worrisome for the White House, Republicans seeking to take Mr. Bush’s place in 2009 also rushed to oppose him.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, first sent out a news release with the headline that he was calling for a “review,” then minutes later re-released it with the new headline that he wanted a “hold.” Mr. Frist also sent a message through his political action committee to supporters announcing his stand against the president.
But Phil Singer, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, accused Republicans who are outraged over the Dubai deal of hypocrisy for casting votes against Democratic initiatives in recent years aimed at beefing up port security.
“Anyone looking for a definition of the pre-9/11 worldview need look no further than at how leading Republican senators have blocked Democratic efforts to improve port security since the 2001 attacks,” Mr. Singer said.
“If these Republican senators are genuine about doing something to improve port security, they should stop voting against Democratic efforts to keep America safe.”
He pointed to six votes where Mr. Frist voted against Democratic proposals aimed at port security and four similar votes by Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican.
But Republicans dismissed the effort to turn the tables on national security.
“Republicans have led the charge for increasing funding for homeland security, including security at out ports throughout the nation,” Frist spokesman Bob Stevenson said. “From the Chesapeake Bay to Biscayne Bay to the Puget Sound, we have increased funding every year for homeland security. Partisan attacks from partisan hacks isn’t going to change that.”