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"POSH" to "P & O" - Who has been minding the store?

By Marion Edwyn Harrison
web posted March 6, 2006

Presumably all of us, semanticists and otherwise, recall the derivation of the word "posh" - "port out, starboard home," referring in the pre-World War I days of the British Empire to one's cabin preference on ocean voyages from Southampton to and from the "Raj." The pervasive furor now implicates a different meaning for "P" & "O" - "P & O," the common abbreviation for the British company which manages seaports and seafaring activity far and wide, including seven American ports (New York, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Orleans, Miami), and which for many months has been in negotiation for sale to the United Arab Emirate ("UAE") company commonly abbreviated "Dubai Ports World."

We all recognize that the public relations in defense of the proposed, and temporarily deferred, sale from British to UAE control fell short. Commentators, columnists, bloggers, candidates for office, Members of Congress and other officeholders like a swarm of bees are out-buzzing one another, disproportionately in denunciations, occasionally calling for objective study. (Apology to the bees: They know why they are buzzing.)

Some expressions of concern have been objective, some questions as to possible security risk realistic. The preponderance, unfortunately, has been otherwise. None surpasses the childish and mindless publicity quest of a North Carolina Republican Representative in Congress, who (facts, grammar, manners and common decency aside) publicly posted her letter to the President of the United States, which reads in full: "In regards [sic] to selling American [sic] ports to the United Arab Emirates [sic], not just no - but hell no."

Those who purport to comment substantively lack detailed and relevant intelligence information. Hence, none is qualified to comment convincingly whether the security risk is any greater when the company managing the seven ports, employing the same management in place for years, is owned by Dubai Ports World, apparently to be owned by UAE state interests, than it was when owned by P & O, a British firm owned by private interests. Presumably the purpose of P & O ownership, whether British or UAE, is to return a profit. Whether the UAE acquisition would carry a security risk presumptively is debatable. When adequate material facts are known it may or may not be debatable. For the present we know that Dubai Ports World operates worldwide, profitably, and is owned by UAE interests - a government which, after a dubious past, in recent years has been of inestimable assistance to the United States Military in the War on Terrorism.

Those who are denouncing so vociferously do not know what the material evidence may reveal. Those State and local elected officials and Senators and Representatives (of both parties), loudly from New York but also from elsewhere, whether or not from the port areas, so busy recklessly churning up publicity by condemning the deal apparently universally have overlooked three significant facts:

1. Our American seaports pervasively are dominated by foreign interests. Walk around the docks, fly over or cruise around in a little boat - yes, security risk aside, all three, in varying measure, are possible. We see foreign flags, foreign ships, foreign registries, foreign crews, foreign cargoes. The Coast Guard informally estimates that 35 - 50% of all American seaport storage is foreign-owned.

2. Security is at best sparse. Examples: It is estimated that only 2 - 5% of cargo boxes are inspected. Nobody knows the personal history of officers and crewmen. The United States Coast Guard has a most trying and difficult assignment, with inadequate funds, personnel and equipment.

3. With respect to the instant furor, were port directors, overseers, administrators (whatever their titles) - whether hardworking, political hacks or something between - aware of the months of negotiations to switch P & O ownership? If not, why not? Did the now-complaining Senators, Representatives, Governors and lesser officials communicate with them? If not, why not? The financial cognoscenti were aware. Many port authorities must have been or should have been aware (even though neither management nor security would change). Why are so many politicians and others suddenly denouncing the Bush Administration for knowledge available over time in their own bailiwick and in cognizant financial circles? Have not these complainers known for many years that our commercial seafaring operations are predominantly foreign-owned, foreign-operated, foreign-manned? If not, why not?

We now are faced with questions, not answers. There is no prudent short-term solution. The public clamoring of much media and some Members of Congress and other political officeholders will not lead to a long-term resolution.

Short term, regardless of who owns the companies that manage our ports and the vessels that load and unload cargos and passengers in them, our imminent concern should be more Coast Guard and other security activity and a strong offshore ballistic missile defense. These imperative security needs have developed over many Presidencies and many Congresses. PR-motivated denunciations at best contribute nothing to the long-term solution; at worst, they cloud the issue.

Direly needed restructuring could come of this political firestorm. State and local officials, United States Senators and Representatives should know what's going on in their seaport "backyards" but the noisier clearly don't. They must cooperate with the Administration. Congress must concentrate upon expanding the Coast Guard and creating an offshore ballistic missile defense. The task will be formidable, inevitably complicated by considerations of international trade. The ride will not be posh.

Marion Edwyn Harrison is President of, and Counsel to, the Free Congress Foundation.


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