It’s not every news cycle that the columnists for the anti-interventionist Antiwar.com and for the internationalist op-ed page of the New York Times find themselves echoing the same line-of-the-day spun by the media masters of George W. Bush’s White House. Those lawmakers who have criticized the Bush administration’s decision to allow a company owned by the government of Dubai —which is part of the United Arab Emirates—to purchase a British company, Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation—which now has the contract to operate six major U.S. ports—were “Kicking Arabs in Their Teeth,” screamed the headline of a column by the Times’ in-house neoconservative David Brooks, a staunch supporter of the war in Iraq. Meanwhile, Justin Raimondo, the long-time libertarian editor of Antiwar.com and a persistent opponent of the military adventure in Mesopotamia, accused those opposed to the deal with the Arab-owned company, Dubai Ports World, of “hating Arabs.”

Is “Dubai a hotbed of radical Islamist agitation?” asked Raimondo, who sounding like the “freedom is on the march in the Middle East” neocons noted that “Dubai is the one city in the Middle East that is the most like America in that it is a symbol—the symbol—of the Arab world’s entry into modernity.” Brooks, transforming himself into a born-again Arabist, denied that the Arab city of Dubai was “a bastion of Taliban radicalism,” describing it as “a modernizing, globalizing place.”

It would be an exaggeration to describe this brief political romance between libertarians and neocons as a sign of a major realignment in American politics. That Sen. Hillary Clinton—who would probably go ballistic if the government targeted Arab-Americans for security checks at airports (“racial profiling”)—would rally against permitting an Arab-owned company to run American port terminals because it’s, well, Arab (“national profiling”?) smacks of pure political opportunism. Indeed, there is little doubt that the Democrats are exploiting the controversy to “get to the right of George Bush,” as suggested by Charles Krauthammer, who in the name of national security would permit the U.S. government to listen your phone conversations and torture suspected terrorists but who backs the Dubai deal that could potentially endanger U.S. security by making it easier for terrorists from the Middle East to infiltrate American ports.
What is more intriguing has been the anti-Bush rebellion over the port issue by Republicans on Capitol Hill and around the country. “Dear Mr. President: In regards to selling American ports to the United Arab Emirates, not just NO but HELL NO!” Rep. Sue Myrick, a Republican from North Carolina, wrote to Bush in a one-sentence letter, reflecting the angry mood among her conservative Republican district. The same sentiment was expressed on conservative radio talk shows whose hosts talked about organizing demonstrations outside the White House. Indeed, Gov. Mike Huckabee, an Arkansas Republican, told the New York Times that the deal “puts a lot of elected officials in an impossible situation,” suggesting that “the visceral reaction they got from their constituents left them no choice in opposing it.” Even some of the pro-Bush hosts on Fox News, including John Gibson, expressed opposition to the deal (although Bill O’Reilly backed it).
It’s ironic that President Bush and his aides, with Raimondo and Brooks by their side, were bashing as “hysterical,” “anti-Arab,” and “racist” the “visceral reaction” to the Dubai deal by Republican conservatives who had backed his decision to oust Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and voted for Bush in the two recent presidential races. As author William Greider pointed out in The Nation, “Hysteria launched Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Hysteria has been used to realign US foreign policy for permanent imperial war-making, whenever and wherever we find something frightening afoot in the world. Hysteria will justify the ‘long war’ now fondly embraced by Field Marshal Rumsfeld. It has also slaughtered a number of Democrats who were not sufficiently hysterical. It saved George Bush’s butt in 2004.” It was Bush who picked at the American people’s “emotional wounds after 9/11 and encouraged them to imagine endless versions of even-larger danger,” Greider wrote. “What if someone shipped a nuke into New York Harbor? Or poured anthrax in the drinking water? OK, a lot of Americans got scared, even people who ought to know better.” Or to put it differently, when you unleash the forces of nationalism, don’t be surprised if you get overwhelmed by them.

Indeed, it was a wounded post-9/11 sense of American nationalism spiced with strong anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments and energized by fears of Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, not any eagerness to spread freedom in the Middle East, that explained why so many Republicans and conservatives from the South and the Midwest, who probably couldn’t even find Iraq on the map and certainly weren’t interested in establishing a democracy there, rallied behind Bush during the invasion of Iraq. They were hoping that we would capture and kill those who were tied to the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington—which according to White House propaganda included Saddam.

After getting rid of the SOB’s, these Americans wanted to make sure that Americans troops returned home and that similar SOB’s wouldn’t infiltrate American borders (and ports) again. Instead, after finding out that Saddam had no WMD and no ties to al-Qaeda, these same Americans are now angry that American troops are killed in Iraq to fulfill Wilsonian fantasies of making the Middle East safe for democracy while—this is their perception—business interests are allowing Arabs to control our ports and help bring in terrorists.
Interestingly enough, in his latest “don’t shoot, I’m not a neocon” manifesto in the New York Times, foreign-policy analyst Francis Fukuyama expressed his concern that the “Jacksonian” nationalists, who have been Bush’s most loyal political troops, are deserting him against the backdrop of the mess in Iraq:

Those whom Walter Russell Mead labels Jacksonian conservatives—red-state Americans whose sons and daughters are fighting and dying in the Middle East—supported the Iraq war because they believed that their children were fighting to defend the United States against nuclear terrorism, not to promote democracy. They don’t want to abandon the president in the middle of a vicious war, but down the road the perceived failure of the Iraq intervention may push them to favor a more isolationist foreign policy, which is a more natural political position for them. A recent Pew poll indicates a swing in public opinion toward isolationism; the percentage of Americans saying that the United States ‘should mind its own business’ has never been higher since the end of the Vietnam War.

The same Pew poll also points to the growing opposition among Americans to free trade and open immigration, suggesting that the war in Iraq is also triggering resistance among the Jacksonians against corporate-led globalization. It’s not surprising therefore that the agenda of libertarians who wanted to spread peace through global commerce is now being undermined by the policies of the Wilsonians who had hoped to promote democracy through war—as they both face the wrath of angry Jacksonians.

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Leon Hadar is a Cato Institute research fellow in foreign-policy studies and author, most recently, of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.

March 27, 2006 Issue