Published on Friday, February 24, 2006 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Free-Trading Away America's Security
by David Sirota
At first glance, it seems strange that President Bush threatened to use the first veto of his presidency to defend the right of the United Arab Emirates to manage six major U.S. ports.
It was certainly an extraordinary move. Bush, who bills himself as "tough" on terrorism, went to bat for the United Arab Emirates against the wishes of his own security experts and his own Republican colleagues in Congress, who noted that the Emirates has known ties to the Sept. 11 terrorists and Osama bin Laden. Why?
As an explanation, Bush publicly pointed to the merits of foreign investment. Foreign investment, of course, can be positive when it fuels the domestic economy but when it comes to America's ports, the extra security precaution of mandating American ownership and control far outweigh the economic benefits of foreign investment by a country such as the United Arab Emirates.
In 1999, Emirates officials were happily commiserating with bin Laden in Afghanistan. According to the Sept. 11 commission, these officials also provided "one of the Taliban's only travel and financial outlets to the outside world." This, at the same time as the Emirates rejected U.S. requests to crack down on terrorist financing. Today, the State Department's Web site about the Emirates notes the serious anti-American threats there.
So again, why? Because this is about far more than just one deal with one company or one country.
The Bush administration is unquestionably the most corporate-controlled administration in recent history, which means the White House doesn't sound the alarm unless corporate America is sounding the alarm. The veto threat is about preserving the rules of so-called "free trade" that big business relies on to maximize profit and that guide America's global economic policy.
Right now, the White House is putting the finishing touches on one of these free-trade agreements with the Emirates. If security concerns overturn the port deal -- and Dubai Ports World has offered to delay the takeover because of such concerns -- the free-trade accord and a subsequent Mideast regional trade pact will be jeopardized.
Free trade is all about allowing corporations to move capital wherever they please, without regard to the labor, human rights, environmental and -- yes -- security consequences of those moves. Nixing the Emirates port-security deal could set a new precedent, whereby our government would include security precautions in its trade policy and more aggressively regulate commerce based on those precautions.
That shift would create a new standard that could impede the as-yet uninhibited quest for profits. Put another way, trade policy would become not quite as free as big Business would like. Such a precedent would have global implications.
Suddenly, the public might want Congress to re-evaluate corporate subsidies with an eye to security. We might see a push, for instance, to rescind the billions in taxpayer-backed loans Congress provided last year to Westinghouse to build nuclear power facilities in China. The public might demand stricter security standards governing technology transfers and ownership privileges in future trade accords. Again, these moves are basic steps to protect our country -- but they would get in the way of companies who have eyes only for the bottom line.
This is why the president threatened his veto. His reflexes are trained to defend the corporate interests that bankrolled his political career. These are the same reflexes detailed in a September Government Accountability Office report chastising the Bush administration for employing overly narrow definitions of national security to expedite questionable transactions such as the Emirates port deal. Though President Bush won't admit this is what motivates his behavior, others are admitting it on his behalf.
Take Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. Days ago he said of the Emirates deal, "We have to balance the paramount urgency of security against the fact that we still want to have a robust global trading system." He's technically right, of course -- we do have to balance those needs. But coming from him, the comments were telling. Could the Bush administration's skewed priorities be any more visible?
Similarly, the New York Times this week quoted a corporate consultant who says that Congress' concerns about the port security deal are "totally illogical." Why? Because, he says, "The location of the headquarters of a company in the age of globalism is irrelevant." This is free-trade fundamentalism. Companies, of course, can't be blamed for being governed by it -- they are in the business of making money, nothing else. But there is a clear danger to America when free-trade fundamentalism becomes government policy, as it has become today.
In recent years, this fundamentalism convinced politicians to ink trade deals with Mexico that discarded labor and environmental standards. It convinced politicians to agree to accords with China that wave off basic human rights. Now, perhaps most incredibly, it convinced a supposedly "tough-on-terrorism" president to brandish his veto pen in defense of a policy that threatens America's national security. That fundamentalism may make the president's big donors happy, but it needlessly endangers our country in the post-Sept. 11 world.
David Sirota is the author of "Hostile Takeover" (Crown Publishers, May 2005) and co-chair of the Progressive Legislative Action Network (www.progressivestates.org), a research and advocacy organization supporting state lawmakers.