Thomas Friedman: War of the Worlds

Perspective: The news of civil war in Iraq is more important than the nonsense over the ports deal with the UAE.

War of the Worlds
Published: February 24, 2006

Since 9/11, whenever the Bush team has found itself in political trouble, it has played the national security card against Democrats. It has worked so well that Karl Rove, in a recent speech to the Republican National Committee, made it a campaign theme for 2006.

He said America today faces “a ruthless enemy” and therefore needs “a commander in chief and a Congress who understand the nature of the threat and the gravity of the moment America finds itself in. President Bush and the Republican Party do. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for many Democrats.”

Mr. Rove added: “Republicans have a post-9/11 worldview, and many Democrats have a pre-9/11 worldview. That doesn’t make them unpatriotic — not at all. But it does make them wrong — deeply and profoundly and consistently wrong.”

I particularly like the line “that doesn’t make them unpatriotic,” when that was exactly the political slur Mr. Rove was trying to implant.

So I understand why Democrats were eager to turn the soft-on-terrorism card back on President Bush when it was revealed that P&O, the navigation company based in London — which has been managing the ports of New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, New Orleans, Miami and Philadelphia — had been bought by Dubai Ports World, a company owned by the Dubai monarchy in the United Arab Emirates, an Arab Gulf state, and that the Bush team had approved the Dubai takeover of the U.S. port operations.

I also understand why many Republicans are now running away from the administration. They know that if they don’t distance themselves from Mr. Bush, some Democrats are going to play this very evocative, very visual “giving away our ports to the Arabs” card against them in the coming elections. Yes, you reap what you sow.

But while I have zero sympathy for the political mess in which the president now finds himself, I will not join this feeding frenzy. On the pure merits of this case, the president is right. The port deal should go ahead. Congress should focus on the N.S.A. wiretapping. Not this.

As a country, we must not go down this road of global ethnic profiling — looking for Arabs under our beds the way we once looked for commies. If we do — if America, the world’s beacon of pluralism and tolerance, goes down that road — we will take the rest of the world with us. We will sow the wind and we will reap the whirlwind.

If there were a real security issue here, I’d join the critics. But the security argument is bogus and, I would add, borderline racist. Many U.S. ports are run today by foreign companies, but the U.S. Coast Guard still controls all aspects of port security, entry and exits; the U.S. Customs Service is still in charge of inspecting the containers; and U.S. longshoremen still handle the cargos.

The port operator simply oversees the coming and going of ships, making sure they are properly loaded and offloaded in the most cost-effective manner. As my colleague David E. Sanger reported: “Among the many problems at American ports, said Stephen E. Flynn, a retired Coast Guard commander who is an expert on port security at the Council on Foreign Relations, ‘who owns the management contract ranks near the very bottom.’ ”

What ranks much higher for me is the terrible trend emerging in the world today: Sunnis attacking Shiite mosques in Iraq, and vice versa. Danish caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, and violent Muslim protests, including Muslims killing Christians in Nigeria and then Christians killing Muslims. And today’s Washington Post story about how some overzealous, security-obsessed U.S. consul in India has created a huge diplomatic flap — on the eve of Mr. Bush’s first visit to India — by denying one of India’s most respected scientists a visa to America on the grounds that his knowledge of chemistry might be a threat. The U.S. embassy in New Delhi has apologized.

My point is simple: the world is drifting dangerously toward a widespread religious and sectarian cleavage — the likes of which we have not seen for a long, long time. The only country with the power to stem this toxic trend is America.

People across the world still look to our example of pluralism, like no other. If we go Dark Ages, if we go down the road of pitch-fork-wielding xenophobes, then the whole world will go Dark Ages.

There is a poison loose today and America — America at its best — is the only antidote. That’s why it is critical that we stand by our principles of free trade and welcoming the world to do business in our land, as long as there is no security threat. If we start exporting fear instead of hope, we are going to import everyone else’s fears right back. That is not a world you want for your kids.

The Discussion: 5 Comments

Sorry, Thomas. While America is the only country which could reverse the trend toward Manichaeanism (it is, after all, America which started the trend), the only way to stop everything being classified as either black or white is to admit that simplistic classification was a mistake to begin with. Try to imagine Bush admitting a mistake.

February 24, 2006 @ 4:58 am | Comment

Got to agree with Mickey. The purpose of spirituality and vision, it seems to me, is to find common ground. But over the past 15-odd years in particular, American extremists in the church have led the way through hypocrisy and by shrieking and viciously and unrelentingly attacking all others in a bid for more customers. The Bushies have compounded this by taking the tactic to politics. The real problem is one of injustice. Bush and U.S. Christian leaders who have excoriated Muslims, shrugged off 30,000 dead Iraqis (Bush) since the ocupation and promoted those who ran torture cells and boost trooop morale by promoting generals who proudly claim my God is better than yours. When the center cannot hold, as Yeats said, chaos is loosed upon the world.

February 24, 2006 @ 6:47 am | Comment

“a commander in chief and a Congress who understand the nature of the threat and the gravity”

You might not see it from inside America, but form where I am sitting, America is digging its own grave by kicking every antsnest going.

America would be far safer if it tried to play nice nice with the foreign states.

The Carrot is a far better tool fo fighting terrorism than the stick.

Rather than bombing terrorists, build hospitals and schools in their strongholds. Starve them of support by getting their would be backers and fighters to think of you as a benevolant force, rather than getting them to fear you as a powereful country.

Courrupt and subvert rather than threaten and kill.

This was how Hamas came to power in Palestine. It wasn’t because it said that it was going to kill israelise, it was because it paid for schools, medical treatment and promised to fight corruption.

Killing Isrealiese was a secondary issue in the elections.

February 24, 2006 @ 6:51 am | Comment

Wow! Thom Friedman makes sense! I think I need to go take some LSD or something. Too bad his resolute service to the Establishment got us here in the first place.

February 24, 2006 @ 9:33 pm | Comment

I think Mr. Friedman hit the nail on the head. Too bad the Bust administration did absolutely nothing to ease the tensions over the CNOOC-Unocal debacle. UAE, cool…CCP, not a chance….

Better late than never….i guess.

February 26, 2006 @ 6:33 pm | Comment

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