Dubai Ports Deal: A Brouhaha That Won't Die Down
LIANE HANSEN, Host:
It's been another rock 'em sock 'em political week in Washington. The big showdown took place on the Hill over the proposed Dubai Ports World arrangement. The company is owned by one the United Arab Emirates and now it appears the plan has been dropped.
NPR's Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving has that and other stories to tell today. He's in the studio. Good morning, Ron. Thanks for coming in.
RON ELVING: Good morning, Liane.
HANSEN: So, Ron, if there's no more port controversy, will Washington continue to talk about it?
ELVING: You bet. We'll go on talking about it I think for at least a little while. There are those who are unwilling to believe that this deal is really done. Some people think that Dubai Ports World could still try to keep some sort of a hand in, in the ports. And look, given the judgment of Congress on this, the key committee vote last week was 62 to just two. And the President's ultimate weapon, the presidential veto, was going to be overridden. This was completely clear.
So while we haven't seen the actual details of how this transfer of their rights to operate these terminals at these ports are going to be given to somebody else, any attempt to sneak this deal back in through some sort of backdoor I think would be disastrous for all involved and the White House just wants to be done with it now.
HANSEN: The President, however, said this matter sends a terrible signal to U.S. allies and trading partners.
ELVING: A bad signal to Arab countries in particular. But U.S. allies and trading partners still have lots of other reasons to do business with us and they'll continue to do so. I think that includes the United Arab Emirates.
There are other lessons here though that are I think more important. Number one, the White House can no longer ignore the Congress and say just trust us. That's not enough when the President's popularity is below 40 percent in the second term.
Number two, the fear that's prevailed in America since 9/11 is still the most powerful political factor we are dealing with.
HANSEN: On that note, the reauthorized Patriot Act was signed, and actually that's one in the plus column for the President.
ELVING: Absolutely. And it was a kind of a landmark really. And it got overshadowed by the ports deal last week. You also had the Senate refusing to investigate the Bush Administration's domestic eavesdropping program. The Senate Intelligence Committee did set up a new subcommittee that's supposed to pay attention to the program, but it's not clear how much access that subcommittee is going to have or how much difference they're going to be able to make.
But in both of these cases, both the Patriot Act which is now back in force and permanent, and the NSA eavesdropping, the administration essentially prevailed by saying we need to take extraordinary measures to deal with extraordinary dangers, and it all goes back to 9/11.
HANSEN: I want to take sidetrack for just a moment because there was some news that came out at the end of the week which could indeed distract the President. One of his aides, a top domestic policy advisor in the White House, was arrested. What do you know?
ELVING: Well, Claude R. Allen, who actually resigned a month ago in the White House, was arrested on charges of swindling two department stores in suburban Washington, D.C., by claiming refunds for goods he had not bought. Now his attorney says it's all a misunderstanding and we don't know how all this will finally be disposed of. But apparently, this was known about and discussed inside the White House as far back as the first week in January. They kept quiet about it, even as Mr. Allen resigned from his job, and they kept silent about it after that until his arrest this past week.
HANSEN: All right. Well, Washington is beginning another week. What message do you think the White House would like to stay on and then, following that, how does the administration plan to do it?
ELVING: Monday afternoon the President's going to go to George Washington University to give a speech about Iraq. He's going to be pleading for patience and the White House is really quite open about this. He's going to be asking the country to be patient. I think their pollsters are finding the same thing a lot of other pollsters are finding, and that is that the underlying weakness of this administration is the discouraging news from Iraq and the fact that we're still there, three full years after we invaded.
Now next week, there are going to be several committees in Congress that are going to be grilling Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and some of his generals, and the White House wants the President to be out there making the case on the affirmative side.
HANSEN: All right. Spring has almost sprung. The grass is almost risen and there are signs of presidential politics in the air, particularly down South. This weekend in Memphis there was a gathering of Republicans who may be, just may be, might be interested in running for the Oval Office. First of all, who's there?
ELVING: Well, this is the Southern Republican Leadership Conference so it's people from the South, and activists, people who are important back home in their state parties, and then some of their special guests. Now, of course the home state senator there in Tennessee is Bill Frist. He is the Senate majority leader. He is interested in being president. He is retiring from the Senate this year and he's going to be a candidate in 2008.
Also, John McCain from Arizona, the runner-up in 2000, who many people think is now the frontrunner for the 2008 nomination, and he was there saying some very interesting things about President Bush, the man who beat him in 2000, telling us we should all rally behind him. Certainly all Republicans should rally behind him. And that we should support him on Iraq and we should support him even on the Dubai Ports deal and that it's time to be in his column.
B: Mitt Romney from Massachusetts and Mike Huckabee from nearby Arkansas.
HANSEN: And this being politics, I bet they took a poll.
ELVING: You bet they did. This was actually sponsored by a media organization, The Hotline, and this is a political insider's operation. But about, well little over half of the vote appears to have been cast by people from Tennessee who came in, some of them with assistance from the Frist campaign and overall, Frist got 37 percent. There are about 1400 votes cast. Frist got a little over a third, but then considering that most of the people voting were from Tennessee, that's not too surprising and those folks probably were the lion's share of his support.
Number two though, interestingly, was Mitt Romney, who was in the mid-teens, probably on the basis largely of having given a good speech since he doesn't really have any Southern connections.
And then you had Senator Allen getting 10 percent and George Bush getting 10 percent, partly, I suspect, because John McCain told people they should not be having a straw poll and they should be writing in George Bush's name and not any other candidates. Mr. McCain himself got about five percent.
HANSEN: NPR Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving. Ron, thanks for coming in today.
ELVING: Thank you, Liane.