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Boxer's rebellion

February 26, 2006

EVEN AS THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION promotes free trade and economic growth as a counter to extremism in the Middle East and elsewhere, some members of Congress appear determined to send a different message: America is happy to use your nation as a staging ground or refueling station for its military adventures, but we don't trust you enough to trade with you. And among the members of Congress conveying this impression most loudly is the junior senator from California, Barbara Boxer.

Dubai Ports World, which is based in the United Arab Emirates, agreed last week to delay the acquisition of the U.S. terminals included in its purchase of a British cargo operations company while the administration gives Congress time to study the deal. Too much delay, or outright rejection, would tarnish this country's international reputation, but that's nothing compared to the damage that could be wrought by the ongoing hysteria in Congress.

No one can dispute that the UAE is a key ally, that the deal has been vetted by the Department of Homeland Security and that it would have no effect on government security operations at the six ports where Ports World would run terminals. The objections to the deal are more rooted in a general mistrust and lack of confidence in the Bush administration.

As well-founded as these concerns may be, they're not the kind of thing that is addressed through legislation such as that proposed by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). Their bill would block companies owned by foreign governments from buying U.S. port operators. If that's what they're really worried about, then they're too late. Some of the world's biggest shipping companies, including China Ocean Shipping (better known as Cosco) and Singapore's APL, both of which have a major presence at California ports, are government-owned. Many of the rest have complex relationships with their home governments, making it very difficult to determine which are state-owned.

This brouhaha is reminiscent of 1998, when Cosco proposed moving from its berth at the Port of Long Beach to a shuttered naval station on the other side of the port that was being converted to a container terminal. Congress, fearing the company was a front for Chinese spies, scotched the deal.

It remains mystifying why anyone would consider a closed naval station, its buildings demolished and equipment long gone, to be a more effective platform for spying than Cosco's present terminal. But opponents of the Cosco deal, mostly Republicans, won a political victory over the Clinton administration.

Now there is a Republican in the White House, and of all the grandstanding surrounding the Dubai Ports World deal, none tops Boxer's performance. She said last week that she would support legislation preventing any foreign firm, state-owned or not, from buying port operators. Memo to Boxer: 13 of the 14 container terminals at the ports of L.A. and Long Beach, the biggest port complex in the U.S., are run by foreign-owned companies. She later told The Times that she meant such deals should get greater scrutiny, not be banned. Still, this is the sort of proposal one would expect from a senator from a land-locked state like Vermont, not one where international trade plays a vital role in the economy. The Clinton-Menendez bill, which Boxer is backing, would do little more than disrupt port operations and attract international protest.

Boxer had a more enlightened view in 1998, when she supported the Cosco move. She now borrows a line from George W. Bush and says the world has changed since 9/11, but that still doesn't explain why she supported terminal operations run by a foreign government-owned company eight years ago but now distrusts any foreign operator whether it comes from a country involved in terrorism or not.

One possible explanation is that the Cosco deal was heavily backed by a Democratic administration, while the Dubai Ports World deal is heavily backed by a Republican administration. But that would mean Boxer is working against the interests of her state in order to score cheap political points. She would never do such a thing. Would she?

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