FLOTSAM & JETSAM: How Washington thinks and why it doesn't work

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

How Washington thinks and why it doesn't work

In trying to figure out why Washington takes such a different view towards the security of business class and the security of cargo containers it occurred to me that most policy makers don't travel by container ship.

The possible application of this seminal observation covers considerable territory. For example, after the TWA 800 crash, it was unclear what had caused it. Logical explanations included a missile attack, A misaimed US test missile, mechanical failure, or a bomb on board. Without waiting for the answer, the Clinton administration swiftly installed a number of security procedures that implicitly assumed the final possibility. To this day, there is little interest in the considerable danger of missile attacks on domestic planes and absolute denial on the part of the government in the case of TWA 800. Further, virtually no attention has been given to the failure of the aircraft in question to be refitted in accordance with official recommendations. It is assumed by journalists and policy makers alike that the overwhelmingly logical source of danger is one of those funny looking passengers standing in line with them.

A similar indifference to the variety of ways that danger might enter the country is found at ground level. There was virtually no media attention given the fact the Chinese had taken over several ports of the Panama Canal. Or that a company owned by the Chinese Army runs the key port of Long Beach, California. After all, the Chinese are trading partners, not terrorists.

It wasn't until it was revealed that a corporation of the United Arab Emirates was about to take over some of our largest and oldest ports that the indifference towards the dispensation of American maritime manna was interrupted. It is still not clear whether if the Chinese Army, rather than the terrorist-hugging UAE, had taken over New York's waterfront there would have been any problem, but there certainly is now.

In the end, several factors probably drove the Bush regime towards this nutty decision. The first was the absence of American bidders for the port deal. This in itself is a telling reminder of how far downhill the country has gone. Second, the Bushists were probably trapped in their mode of 'globalization is good' rather than 'terrorism is bad.' After all, spin spins the spinners as well as the spun. Finally, however, people who run things and write things in Washington these days just don't know much about mundane, declasse matters such as ports and longshoremen. They proved this already with New Orleans. You can't expect people who think up things like the Long War to also know how to recover from a hurricane, build a skyscraper that won't collapse, or unload a vessel safely.

Older imperialists were a bit different. As the BBC notes of the British empire: "Overseas commerce was conducted within the mercantilist framework of the Navigation Acts, which stipulated that all commodity trade should take place in British ships, manned by British seamen, trading between British ports and those within the empire."

Perhaps Dubai will want to buy Ronald Reagan airport and the Chinese Army will take over JFK. Then, finally, the business class that runs this land will understand what the fuss is all about.