Last August, Becker and I blogged about the effort of a Chinese oil company to buy the American oil company Unocal. That effort failed because of fears that China would use control of the company to the detriment of the United States. Becker and I thought those fears chimerical. In effect, by purchasing Unocal, the Chinese would have been giving us a hostage. Moreover, if as feared (groundlessly) they ordered Unocal to sell all its oil to China, the only consequence would be that whatever supplier of oil to China Unocal would be replacing would now have unsold oil to sell to the United States. Our oil supply, and oil prices, would not be affected.
Defenders of the thwarted transaction by which Dubai Ports World, a company owned by the government of Dubai, one of the United Arab Emirates, would (through its purchase of the British port operating company Peninsula & Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O)) have obtained control over loading and unloading ships at a half-dozen major U.S. ports argued that the opposition to the transaction was as blatant and misguided a display of xenophobia as the opposition to China‚Äôs acquiring Unocal. But the two cases are not symmetrical. The opposition to the Dubai deal had nothing to do with fears that Dubai Ports World would deprive the United States of access to an essential raw material or otherwise harm the United States economically. Nor, I think, had the opposition much to do with fears of foreign investment in general, since the transaction was between two foreign companies (P&O and DP World). Protectionism is not a compelling explanation for opposition to the sale of assets by one foreign company to another even if some of the assets are located in the United States. Toyota has factories in the United States, but if BMW bought Toyota, who would care? The defeat of the DP World transaction was the result of a groundswell of American popular opinion (though egged on by politicians and the media) that is more plausibly interpreted as anti-Muslim and anti-terrorist than as protectionist. Dubai is an Arab nation with pre-9/11 links to al Qaeda, and U.S. port security is notoriously lax. No serious person thinks that Dubai would actually connive in a terrorist attack on the United States. The fear is rather that an Arab company is more easily penetrated by Islamic terrorists than a non-Arab one.
The fear may be exaggerated, but many of the arguments made in defense of the Dubai deal seem dubious. For example, it was argued that since British, Singapore, Chinese, and other foreign companies already control some port operations in the United States (P&O being one), the cat is out of the bag. But the companies of non-Islamic nations are no more likely to be penetrated by terrorists than a U.S. company is. It is not, as some defenders argue, "racist" for Americans to differentiate Islamic nations and peoples from other nations and peoples with regard to security precautions. It is merely realistic. (Many of those defenders in fact support racial and ethnic profiling as a rational police and counterterrorism practice.) Nor is it a complete answer to the opposition to point out that the employees at the ports that Dubai Ports World would have operated are Americans and would be unlikely to be replaced by Arabs or other foreigners, or that the security of U.S. ports is the responsibility of the Coast Guard and of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (both components of the Department of Homeland Security) rather than of the port operator. The local managers of DP World doubtless provide a stream of information to the company's headquarters in Dubai concerning various aspects of their port operations (including personnel), and this information might be valuable to anyone contemplating a terrorist attack on the United States who might have access to the company‚Äôs files. And doubtless personnel from headquarters visit the ports from time to time on business. Apparently the investigation made by the U.S. government before approving the transaction was superficial.
I would have to know a lot more than I do about port security to be able to evaluate the risk that allowing DP World to control U.S. port operations would create to national security. The risk may be slight; but even so, running a slight risk of catastrophic loss is worthwhile only if the benefits of the risk-taking are considerable. The benefits would have been slight had the government handled the matter more adroitly. Apparently DP World, in buying P&O, was not particularly interested in the latter's U.S. operations. So when the proposed acquisition was first submitted to the U.S. government for approval, our government might quietly have suggested (maybe it did, though there is no indication of this) that DP World spin off the U.S. operations that it was acquiring to an American company. Because this was not done, and DP World is being depicted as having backed off from acquiring the U.S. port operations because of fierce grass-roots American opposition, concern has been expressed that we are poisoning our relations with the Islamic world in general and Dubai in particular, and even discouraging foreign investment in the United States by non-Islamic countries.
This concern seems overblown. Take the last point first. Because of our large budget deficit, the world is awash in dollars. The companies holding those dollars are avid to invest in the United States, either by helping to finance our deficit or by acquiring U.S. assets. They are not likely to be deterred by a security concern focused on an Islamic nation. Some Islamic nations may be angry with us; but those nations do not invest heavily in the United States. Tiny Dubai can hardly afford to retaliate against the United States, to which it looks for protection against the stronger nations in its region, such as Iran. Nor for that matter can Saudi Arabia. Between us and the Islamic world (outside of frankly hostile nations such as Iran and Syria) the economic and security dependence is mutual. Moreover, the ruling and business classes in these nations understand that the United States is a democracy, that our government must therefore be responsive to public opinion, and that Islamic terrorism and fanaticism, the French riots, and the riots over the Danish cartoons, have increased the hostility of Western populations to Muslims. Demonstrations of the indignation of the American people over Muslim misconduct may even cause some Muslim leaders to rein in their followers.
Western hostility to radical Islam was one of several factors that made the government's defense of the DP World acquisition a distinctly uphill struggle quite apart from legitimate security concerns. Another such "extraneeous" factor was our government‚Äôs surprising neglect of port security, which has made our ports seem the weakest link in our defense against terrorist attack by means of weapons of mass destruction, weapons that could probably be brought to the United States only by sea. Another factor was the poor reputation of the Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for port security; the Department's assurances that the DP World acquisition would not undermine national security were bound to fall on deaf ears. Then too there is suspicion, based on our lucrative commerce with Dubai and on our failure to require strong counterterrorist measures by our chemical industry, that our government trades off terrorist risks against business interests on terms too favorable to the latter.
I have expressed concern before in this blog and in other media about what seems a crisis of competence in U.S. government. For reasons probably rooted in the sheer complexity of modern society, to which our governmental structure may not be well adapted, we have experienced in recent years a series of policy fiascoes, many of which seem to reflect an inability to plan ahead. In the case of the DP World deal, this inability was expressed in the failure to foresee the public reaction to the deal.