February 28, 2006,
In their opportunistic rage over the Dubai ports deal, Democrats might find more than a transitory political advantage. The ports controversy is a road map to something the Democrats desperately need: a politically salable, post-9/11 national-security policy.
Nattering on about how important it is to listen to the U.N. and France has been a loser. Nor has the party's incoherence on the Iraq war in favor of it when it seems politically expedient, sort of against it when it doesn't gotten it anywhere. But the successful posturing on the Dubai deal points the way toward a thematically consistent foreign policy that could be popular, even if it is tinged with isolationism and nativism.
Republicans opposed to the deal have had to say, "We support free trade, but ..." Most Democrats don't have to bother with the "but." Last year, only 15 Democrats in the House and 10 in the Senate voted for the Central America Free Trade Agreement, demonstrating the party's departure from Bill Clinton's support for free trade. Protectionism typically travels with a paranoia about foreigners and their intentions, so Democrats are the more natural anti-Dubai-deal party than the Republicans.
Sen. Hillary Clinton (D., N.Y.) and Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.), are promoting legislation that would ban any company owned by a foreign government from managing a U.S. terminal, widening out the outrage over the Dubai deal to a more general anti-foreign sentiment. The Democrats' chief constituency for protectionism, the unions, has been fanning the port controversy. Protectionism has usually not been a winner in American politics, but it gains punch when it is coupled with a suspicion of the Arab world.
Democrats can capitalize on this dynamic on another matter: energy independence. President Bush acknowledged the political power of this issue by making a bow to it in his State of the Union address. But Democrats are more naturally positioned to support the taxes, regulations and subsidies necessary to try to wean us off foreign oil, and then demagogue anything short of their policies as a sop to "George Bush's friends, the Saudis." Saudi Arabia is America's most-hated ally outside of France, and while Democrats have at times seemed on the verge of exploiting this, they never have.
Then there is Iraq. When John Kerry said in 2004 we should be building firehouses at home instead of in Baghdad, he was playing to isolationist sentiment. With the state of Iraq still chaotic, it will be more tempting now for Democrats to ask: Why are we spending blood and treasure on the welfare of people in a faraway country of which we know little except, perhaps, that they don't seem capable of getting along?
Put this all together and you get a national-security policy based on doing more to seal ourselves off from the world; spending more on homeland security, including the ports; emphasizing our independence from Gulf sheikdoms; and forswearing serious attempts to reform Arab countries. President Bush would be left with the politically delicate task of explaining why we need to go out of our way to court some Arab allies, even if they are imperfect, and why trying to liberalize the perpetually tumultuous Middle East rather than turning our backs on it is so important.
There are problems with Democrats adopting this approach. It would be irresponsible, and there are some Democrats left Sen. Joe Biden comes to mind for whom that still matters. It would reject the post-World War II Democratic tradition of internationalism, to which the party (thankfully) still has a reflexive commitment. Finally, Democrats would inevitably mix their message. They can't be the homeland-security party and oppose the Patriot Act and the National Security Agency eavesdropping program. They can't be the hardheaded, let's-take-care-of-our-own party and still be best friends with the global elite at Turtle Bay and Davos, Switzerland.
But the Dubai controversy has to be satisfying for Democrats, and with opportunism knocking, they will be tempted to answer.