How Much the Ports Storm Is Costing Bush

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ROBERT SULLIVAN / AFP / GETTY

The Port of Miami, above, is just one of several U.S. ports that a United Arab Emirates company is attempting to manage

In a big-time role reversal, it’s now George W. Bush who wants to transcend 9/11 and Democrats who want to relive it. The President’s political machine has capitalized for years on emotional appeals to Americans' fear of terrorism. But in the dispute over allowing an Arab-owned company to manage crucial American ports, Bush is confronting the Republican leadership of Congress with a very different kind of argument: a subtle, intellectual and yes, principled, case for consistency in barrier-free trading and allied opposition to al Qaeda. "We cannot ask Arab countries in the Middle East to embrace democracy and join the global economy and then unfairly discriminate against them," said talking points circulated to White House allies late Wednesday morning, a day after Bush threatened to use his first presidential veto against any legislation to overturn the deal.

The United Arab Emirates, home of the state-controlled company that has made the deal to manage sensitive U.S. port operations, has been very helpful to American intelligence services and its ports have been important to the U.S. military. Some supporters of the deal call the opposition xenophobic and shortsighted, and even some Democrats find themselves in the unusual position of admitting that Congress is overreacting and that Bush is actually in the right. But it has given Democrats their most inviting platform in years to bang the security drum, and most Republicans are refusing to cede the ground in this election year.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan acknowledged Wednesday that Bush did not know about the sale of the six major port operations to a Dubai company until after Administration approval had been granted. "This didn't arise to the presidential level," McClellan said. "You have all the security departments that are involved in this — the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, the Department of State. You have the National Security Council that is part of this process, too. And there are representatives from each of those departments and agencies that participate in this process, some 12 departments and agencies that are involved." McClellan added, "If there have been concerns about national security threats, then there — I am sure that additional steps would have been taken."

Still, that is unlikely to quell the controversy. "It’s open season on the White House," said one Bush loyalist on Capitol Hill — speaking matter-of-factly, with neither glee nor regret. Republican congressional aides said they and their bosses were furious that the White House looked caught by surprise, with no press strategy and no immediate briefings for lawmakers who were being besieged by constituent calls. "They’re making it look like the Administration is asleep at the wheel on port security," said a top Republican leadership aide. "This is typical of their tin ear and unresponsiveness." On ABC’s "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," the Secretary for Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, looked as dumbstruck by the questions about the Dubai deal as he did in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

"It’s like Harriet Miers," says one Republican strategist, referring to Bush’s botched nomination for the Supreme Court. "They really don‘t know how bad it is and they think they can tough it out." Perhaps most damaging for the White House, Tom Ridge, Bush’s first secretary of Homeland Security, went on MSNBC’s "Hardball" to say there is "legitimate concern" about the deal, although he said that could be abated when people learn how the decision was made. Ridge is a former Pennsylvania governor, and Philadelphia is one of the ports involved. When asked about whether this was yet another case of the White House being caught flat-footed, Ridge said: "It’s pretty clear that someone may have underestimated the political fallout, because of the perception."

The initial attacks on the deal, which was first disclosed in an Associated Press article on February 11, were confined to governors and lawmakers in the New York region. Then, the top two Republican leaders on Capitol Hill — Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois — announced reservations, setting up a rare confrontation with the White House. Phil Singer, communications director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, says it could turn out to be "George Bush’s last stand — his Custer-like moment" before being consigned to lame-duck status after Congress finally prevails.

As the simmering dispute boiled over, it looked as if Bush’s only high-profile supporter would be former president Jimmy Carter, who said on CNN that he did not think the deal was a threat to the United States or its security. By day’s end, the President had another friend — his little brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who said he has "full confidence that the President of the United States will make the right decision as it relates to our national security interests." Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) also resisted jumping on the anti-deal bandwagon, saying in a statement that Bush’s "leadership has earned our trust in the war on terror."

Opponents of the deal are able to play the 9/11 card because the FBI has said money for the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center were transferred to hijackers through the UAE banks, and some of the hijackers traveled to the U.S. through the Emirates, a federation about the size of Maine that includes Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The UAE, which is 96 percent Muslim, was one of only three countries — along with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia — to recognize the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan before it cut its diplomatic ties on Sept. 22, 2001. Although there were some initial complaints from the U.S. government about UAE resistance to helping track Osama bin Laden’s bank accounts, those complaints were very short-lived. One former Bush official went so far as to say that the UAE "became perhaps the most cooperative Arab nation in the financial war on terror — much more so than other Gulf states." It also is not lost on the Bush family that the UAE sent forces to help liberate Kuwait during the Persian Gulf War.

In his rare visit with reporters in the front cabin of Air Force One on Tuesday, the President spoke in a tone that was often sharper than usual. "They ought to listen to what I have to say about this," Bush, clad in a flight jacket, said of congressional opponents. "They ought to look at the facts, and understand the consequences of what they're going to do. But if they pass a law, I'll deal with it, with a veto."

Bush made similar remarks for cameras upon his return to the White House, without using the word "veto." It would be the first of his Presidency, and one that has a good chance of being overridden by a Congress that is tired of being dissed by this White House. Republican leaders predicted to TIME that Bush will cave in some way, perhaps allowing further review to let things cool off, or promising Congress more of a role in future decisions involving foreign control in the United States. When ABC’s Jessica Yellin asked Bush why it was so important to him to take the issue on as a political fight, he responded with an edge: "It's not a political issue." But as the ports dust-up has made abundantly clear, it's no longer up to the President to make that kind of judgment call.

With reporting by Massimo Calabresi and Matthew Cooper/Washington