Wash. Post's Cohen repeated Bush falsehood in alleging ports deal xenophobia

››› ››› SIMON MALOY

In his column about the Dubai Ports World deal, in which the company is set to assume control of six major U.S. ports, Richard Cohen quoted President Bush making the false characterization of opposition to the deal: "[I]t's OK for a British company to manage some ports, but not OK for a company from a country that is a valuable ally in the war on terror." By quoting Bush without challenge, Cohen adopted the false premise at its heart: that the only difference between the British company and DPW is country of origin. In fact, DPW is owned by the government of Dubai, while the previous owner is not government-owned, a critical distinction as a matter of law.

In his February 28 column, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen claimed that the controversy over the Bush administration's approval of a deal that will allow Dubai Ports World (DPW) -- a company owned by the government of Dubai -- to assume control of six major U.S. ports "is really about security anxiety and a dislike of things and people Arab." In supporting his claim, Cohen praised President Bush for "refus[ing] to indulge anti-Arab sentiment over the Dubai ports deal," and quoted Bush saying: "What I find interesting is that it's OK for a British company to manage some ports, but not OK for a company from a country that is a valuable ally in the war on terror."

But in simply quoting Bush's statement, Cohen repeated its false premise: that there is no difference as a matter of law between DPW and the British company currently controlling the ports, Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co. (P&O), and therefore criticism of the administration's approval of the deal necessarily rests solely on DPW's country of origin. In fact, DPW is owned by the government of Dubai, a member state of the United Arab Emirates, whereas P&O, whose operations would be taken over by DPW, is not government-owned or -controlled. The distinction is critical as a matter of law, as Media Matters for America has noted.

In his February 28 column, Cohen wrote:

There are times when George Bush sorely disappoints. Just when you might expect him to issue a malapropian explanation, pander to his base or simply not have a clue about what he is talking about, he does something so right, so honest and, yes, so commendable, that -- as Arthur Miller put it in "Death of a Salesman" -- "attention must be paid." Pay attention to how he has refused to indulge anti-Arab sentiment over the Dubai ports deal.

[...]

To overlook the xenophobic element in this controversy is to overlook the obvious. It is what propelled the squabble and what sustains it. Bush put his finger on it right away. "What I find interesting is that it's okay for a British company to manage some ports, but not okay for a company from a country that is a valuable ally in the war on terror," he said last week. "The UAE has been a valuable partner in fighting the war on terror." It is a long way from a terrorist haven.

[...]

We are in an odd era of symbolic news events. The Dick Cheney shooting was treated as if it were of cosmic political importance. Some pundits even called on the vice president to resign, while others merely saw everything the Bush administration had gotten wrong -- an almost inexhaustible list -- as distilled in a single bad shot and the resultant pout. Now it is the port controversy. But if the Cheney story was about everything else -- including, of course, the taciturn and slippery Cheney himself -- then this port controversy is really about security anxiety and a dislike of things and people Arab. The deal may not be perfect, but it is a long way from a Page One story.

Cohen quoted Bush speaking to reporters at a short February 23 press briefing. As Media Matters has noted, the distinction between companies owned or controlled by foreign governments and those that are not government-owned or -controlled has legal significance. A provision of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1993 requires an additional 45-day investigation of foreign direct investment in the United States if "the acquirer is controlled by or acting on behalf of a foreign government" and the acquisition "could result in control of a person engaged in interstate commerce in the U.S. that could affect the national security of the U.S." As critics of the deal have noted, the UAE was one of just three countries to recognize the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan prior to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Also, U.S. investigators have found that more than $120,000 was funneled through UAE bank accounts to the 9-11 hijackers, and the 9-11 Commission found that the UAE "ignored American pressure to clamp down on terror financing until after the attacks." Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) have proposed legislation to "prohibit companies owned or controlled by foreign governments" -- not just companies controlled by Middle Eastern or Arab governments -- from operating U.S. ports.

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