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Political Controversy Over Ports May be Defused


The decision by a company based in Dubai to abandon efforts to take over management of several large U.S. ports may have defused a political controversy that pitted President Bush against some of his most loyal Republican supporters in Congress. Opposition to the Dubai company's plan had sparked strong opposition from both Republicans and Democrats.

The decision by Dubai Ports World came as a relief both to the White House and Republican congressional leaders.

Republicans, like California Congressman Jerry Lewis, had led the charge in opposing the deal.

"This is a national security bill," said Lewis. "We want to make sure that the security of our ports is in America's hands."

Public opinion polls show Americans opposed the operation of major seaports by a company based in Dubai. The deal also faced strong bipartisan opposition in Congress.

Political analyst Michael Barone says it is the latest example of strains between President Bush and his conservative Republican supporters in Congress.

"And a lot of his conservative Republicans have complaints on spending, on immigration, and many of them oppose temporary guest worker programs," said Barone. "They did not like the [Supreme Court] nomination of Harriet Miers, which was withdrawn, and they really do not like this Dubai ports deal, I think in part, because public opinion has been so steadily against it."

Another analyst, Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution in Washington, sees the collapse of the port deal as a major political setback for President Bush.

"Frankly, this goes well beyond his conservative base," said Mann. "The problem to most Americans across parties is that it goes to a matter of competence, and reinforces the reaction they had after Hurricane Katrina."

The decision by Dubai Ports World to turn over management of the ports to a U.S. entity seemed to satisfy many of those who had opposed Dubai involvement on national security grounds.

"This is over," said Republican Congressman Peter King of New York. "We can all go forward and there is no acrimony, there is no more problem, there is no more division. We all stand together."

President Bush had threatened to veto any congressional attempts to block the deal. And even though the political squabble with his fellow Republicans may be settled for now, Mr. Bush does worry about the implications for U.S. foreign relations.

"I am concerned about a broader message this issue could send to our friends and allies around the world, particularly in the Middle East," said Mr. Bush. "In order to win the war on terror, we have got to strengthen our relationships and friendships with moderate Arab countries in the Middle East."

Political analysts say the administration misjudged the intensity of public opposition to the ports deal, especially with the focus on security in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Karlyn Bowman monitors public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

"Most Americans believe that there will be another terrorist attack on our soil," she said. "A good chunk of them believe that they themselves could be victims of terrorism. And so, it is always in the background, concern about another terrorist attack in the United States."

The ports deal controversy has not helped the president's public approval ratings, which are already depressed, largely because of the situation in Iraq.

Several recent surveys place Mr. Bush's approval ratings between 34 and 41 percent.