Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Business First, Business Last, Business Forever

It's startling to see Bush threatening to veto any bill that would halt the Dubai port management deal, especially with the rising tide of Republican opposition (now including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist). Why would Bush dig in his heels so deep on what is fundamentally a minor matter? (This would be the very first veto of his entire presidency.) It's not as though he hasn't flipped on much bigger issues in the past (such as the creation of the Department of Homeland Security), usually without paying any political price.

It suggests to me the degree to which Bush's deepest instinctive commitment--even deeper than his commitment to increasing the political power of the Republican Party--is to the unfettered practice of business. It seems that Bush is genuinely shocked and offended by the notion of any limits to laissez-faire. Thus, when the goals of "national security" and "protecting Americans" to which Bush pays lip service conflict with business as usual, business instantly wins. And when his fellow Republicans challenge this priority, Bush vows to apply the full power of his office to its defense, as if the issue represents the true rock-bottom of his personal values. Which I guess it does.

As for the substance of the controversy: I sought an opinion from Michael Cherkasky, president and CEO of the Marsh & McLennan Companies, former president of the firm's Kroll security division, and author of a good book about homeland security, Forewarned: Why the Government Is Failing to Protect Us--and What We Must Do to Protect Ourselves. (Full disclosure: I served as a consulting editor on the book, which is how I know Mike.) Published in 2003 by Ballantine Books, Forewarned included a detailed analysis of the port security problem, which Mike was one of the first to highlight post-9/11.

Mike responded to my email query about the Dubai deal this way:

We are more and more ceding our critical infrastructure to global companies, and they will do what is in their, or their owners', best interest. So I do indeed have a problem with this. It is like the English having the Krupps make their barbed wire before the First World War.

(Mike hastened to add that, in fact, the English did not outsource their defenses to the Germans before WWI--which of course is precisely Mike's point.)

On CNN, Jimmy Carter gave the deal his blessing. But his argument seemed to be based on the assumption that the Bush administration had thoroughly vetted the Dubai company that will take over the ports. It has been years since I assumed that the Bush administration has been thorough, competent, or unbiased in any of its dealings, so I can't follow Carter's reasoning there . . .

I don't know anyone with more informed or balanced judgment about homeland security issues than Mike Cherkasky. So if he thinks the Dubai deal is dangerous, I'm inclined to agree.

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