Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

For once, Bush is on the side of the angels
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The Independent Online

The affair has caused an astonishing uproar. As a tale of paranoia, cheap political opportunism and indifference to what the rest of the world may think, it takes some beating. And for once Mr Bush is on the side of the angels.

He, at least, seems aware of the appalling message a ban on the sale would send to the Islamic world. The row unfolded last week against a backdrop of near civil war in Iraq, and continuing uproar among Muslims over the Mohamed cartoons. To bar Arab owners, when it had earlier sanctioned British ones in the form of P&O, would be an act of breathtaking hypocrisy by an administration that maintains it is not waging war against Islam, and is trying to spread democracy across the Muslim world. But these facts are lost on domestic politicians concerned only with November's mid-term elections.

Every argument against the deal collapses under the most cursory scrutiny. Yes, the UAE was home to two of the 9/11 terrorists. It was also one of just three states that had diplomatic relations with the Taliban, and the main conduit for financing the Washington and New York terrorist attacks.

But that was five years ago, since when the Emirates have become one of Washington's more reliable partners in a very treacherous part of the world. But, critics loudly claim, they are nowhere near as reliable as Britain, the home country of the present operator, P&O Ports. Except that, as anyone who uses London's Underground and buses knows, Britain has its share of Islamist extremists too.

So the critics move on to their second charge, that the sale was not properly examined by the federal government. Except that it was, months ago, and the vetting committee concluded it posed no threat to national security. So the matter was not brought to the President's attention.

Nor can anyone quite explain what national security threat would be posed by Arab ownership. Such is the fuss, you would imagine that America's main East Coast ports are about to become sanctuaries for terrorists, wide open for the illicit transit of WMDs, with radical imams on the waterfront.

In fact, responsibility for port security will belong, as it always has, to the US Customs and the Coastguard, which can intercept vessels hundreds of miles out to sea if need be. Ships will be unloaded by the same red-white-and-blue longshoremen as before. The ports' local managers will be the same. In short, the security threat is nonsense.

The hysteria is the latest example of a recurring American paranoia that led President Franklin Roosevelt to lock up Japanese-Americans in the Second World War and enabled Joe McCarthy to stage his anti-Communist witch-hunt. Now, whatever anyone pretends, Muslims are the targets.

On Friday, Dubai Port World came to Mr Bush's rescue by offering to delay the deal for a month or so, to allow tempers to cool. How much better, though, had he stood his ground and told the country the facts. Alas, so often has he manipulated the truth over terrorism and matters Middle Eastern that he no longer has the credibility or moral authority to do so.