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March 10, 2006

Congress to UAE: Can You Hear Me Now?

Today, the Washington Post earned every penny of the rather large subscription check I just wrote out:

THEY SPEND drunkenly, they fail at oversight and they can't stop the administration from abusing detainees or tapping phones. But never call the members of Congress powerless: Yesterday, in the exalted name of anti-terrorism, the Senate rebelled against its Republican leadership and joined the House in a vote to prevent a company based in a moderate, friendly Arab country from making a minor investment in the United States. When it became clear that some such blocking measure would pass, Dubai Ports World threw in the towel, announcing that it would sell all of its U.S. operations, including the management operations of six U.S. ports it recently acquired, and do business elsewhere.

Of course, the speed of that announcement illustrates a critical point: that this investment always was a business decision, not the early stages of a covert attack on Baltimore. Quite rightly, the company and its Dubai-based owners -- who are stunned, apparently, by the unexpected reaction to what they thought was a routine business deal -- didn't want their country's and their company's names dragged through the mud, so they cut their losses.

But our brave new Congress has achieved more than the irrational spiking of one business deal. It has also sent a clear message to the Arab world: No matter how far you move along the path of modernization and cooperation, Americans may be unable to distinguish you from al-Qaeda. Dubai welcomes hundreds of ship visits every year from the U.S. Navy and allied ships. It has worked with U.S. agents to stop terrorist financing and nuclear cooperation. But none of that mattered to the craven members of Congress -- neither to the Democrats who first sensed a delicious political opportunity nor to the Republicans who then fled in unseemly panic. As to long-term damage to the United States' security, economy and alliances? Not of concern to the great deliberative body.

No one should underestimate the potential damage. Any government in a Muslim-majority country will have to ask itself: Why take the risk of friendship? If governments find no good answer to that question, the fight against radical Islamic terrorism will suffer. Meanwhile, Arab investors may think twice before putting their money in a country where their companies risk expropriation. With the price of oil so high, Arabs are rapidly becoming a major supplier of foreign capital. This isn't a good moment for Americans to discourage foreign investment, given the nation's dependence on foreign capital (see: Congress, drunken spending by). Nor will the message -- that foreign ownership was unobjectionable when it was British but intolerable when it was Arab -- do much to advance U.S. efforts to promote equitable investment rules for its own companies abroad.

Read it. Read it all.

I am disgusted beyond measure. And for once, speechless. In their cynical pandering to a craven and ill-informed electorate, our trigger-happy Congress has once more fired off a shot that will indeed be heard round the world:

The ports deal was part of the UAE's embrace of things Western. Wednesday night, I traveled with the minister of higher education, Sheik Nahayan bin Mubarak, to the dusty city of Al Ain to attend a Mozart festival at which the Vienna Chamber Orchestra performed. And I visited the American University of Sharjah, created nine years ago as a beacon of liberal arts education. On a wall next to the chancellor's office is a photo of the twin towers in New York, taken by one of the students on June 8, 2001. "There are no words strong enough to express how we feel today," reads a statement signed by UAE students.