TCS Daily

Avoiding a New Isolationism

By Carroll Andrew Morse - April 3, 2006 12:00 AM

Whether the scuttling of the deal with Dubai Ports World was sui generis or the beginning of a period of increasing American isolationism will depend upon what American leaders, who believe in a robust engagement with the world, take away from the affair. The immediate lesson is that the American public -- for better or for worse -- will readily consider isolationist solutions to foreign policy problems. An important corollary is that Congress, in the absence of clear leadership, will make isolationism into official policy.

This is not unique to this time or this Congress. Thirty years ago, Henry Kissinger observed that America oscillated (his term) between poles of "crusading and isolation" in its engagement (or non-engagement) with the world. The challenge in building a popular (and stable) basis for American engagement comes in forming a consensus around a policy that lies between these two extremes. In a democracy, successfully forming such a consensus hinges on finding a big idea to guide the conduct of foreign policy -- because, in a country of 300 million people busy with their own lives, the pull towards a policy of "minding our own business" or "taking care of our own" becomes overwhelming in the absence of a big idea for engagement.

A Big Idea

President Bush has expressed a big idea for American foreign policy -- American security depends upon replacing weak states and tyrannies with something better. This differs from the policies of past Presidential administrations who focused more on the strategic value or commercial potential of the other countries of the world, and less -- and sometimes not at all -- on their internal governance. The attacks of September 11 exposed this view as inadequate. A combination of the world's most chaotic corners like Sudan and Afghanistan that had served as Al-Qaida bases, and seemingly stable countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that had provided Al-Qaeda recruits -- had produced a dangerous threat to the United States without becoming strategic threats in a traditional sense.

President Bush's policies of promoting democracy and ending tyranny brought retrograde states into the national strategy. In particular, President Bush modified a big foreign policy idea that had taken root following the end of the Cold War, the idea that international commerce was the only force needing consistent attention and that security and humanitarian concerns, in the long term, would be ameliorated once the right global trade structure was established. Bush didn't reject the importance of international commerce as a dimension of foreign policy, but he did recognize that there were parts of the world -- Afghanistan and Iraq to name two -- where transformations improving humanitarian, security, and economic situations might never begin until political transformations deposing tyranny happened first.

The Idea Lost

The problems that ultimately proved fatal to the Dubai Ports World deal stemmed from the fact that the Bush Administration did not make clear how the port deal meshed with the goal of changing the Middle Eastern status quo. The government of the UAE -- though itself an ally -- is certainly closer to tyranny than democracy; Freedom House has noted that "the UAE has never held an election", that the UAE has laws that "prohibit criticism of the government, ruling families, and friendly governments", and that "the judiciary is not independent". But if the Bush administration felt that the UAE was a case where it was reasonable to believe that economic engagement would eventually lead the way to a gradual, peaceful mellowing of an authoritarian government, they did not acknowledge it. They defended the deal in purely commercial and realist terms -- the deal was good business, and the US needed to reward an ally in the war on terror, so what more was there to say?

The Administration's reluctance to discuss the potential of transforming the authoritarianism of the UAE almost certainly flowed from an understandable reluctance to avoid repeating a past American mistake. The administration of Jimmy Carter became infamous for eroding America's strategic position by punishing American allies for their domestic illiberality while ignoring as bad or worse behavior perpetrated by American enemies. President Bush didn't want American criticism of the democratic deficiencies of the UAE to create domestic or regional pressures on the UAE that might constrain its ability to act in support of the US.

But there was an unintended effect; the American public's view of their choices became severely narrowed. Because the President did not want to involve the domestic nature of the UAE in the discussion of the port deal, he could not explain how the deal was a step contributing to the liberalization of the Arab world. And without hearing (from the highest level official channels) that one goal of the deal was to encourage the liberalization of the Arab world, many Americans came to see nothing more in the deal than an encroachment on the US border by a authoritarian government.

The Lesson

At the most basic level, that is the most important lesson of the failure of the Dubai Ports World deal; for all the talk of grand strategies and balances of power and economic globalization that drive most foreign policy discussions, foreign policy also always involves a visceral element. Citizens expect their governments to prevent what is different and dangerous about the outside -- what is, literally, foreign -- from encroaching upon what is comfortable and familiar inside. When the inside loses any control to the outside, even through mutual agreement, a fear that the world inside has lost something and is now less than it was before cannot entirely be avoided. The crude way of quelling this fear -- disengaging from the world -- will always have an appeal to America unless American leaders can make a convincing case that America is capable of changing the world more than the world is capable of changing America. This cannot be done unless America is willing to confront shortcomings of the outside world, in both its enemies and its allies.

Carroll Andrew Morse is a writer living in Providence, RI. He is a TCS contributing writer and posts to the blog Anchor Rising (



isolationism and disaster response services
During Katrina, many nations, including the Russians,
came to the assistance of the US. Among the aircraft
used to ferry relief cargo to Arkansas was the IL-76.
Big Ilyushins carried cargo from India and the Russian Ferderation.

Not much was made of this. The public seemed more taken with stories dealing with US domestic emergency response

Among the US emergency response shortcomings the US
media has not adequately dealt with is the failure of
the US Forest Service to deploy the world's most
powerful, proven, firefighting aircraft over the same
decade that aircraft (also an IL-76) has been
fighting wildfire elsewhere.

It would just be a whole lot better for US emergency
response if the politicians dealt firmly with the US Forest Service on this issue and go a long way to cure
the sense of isolationism that politicians like John
McCain seem to engenger with his Russia-bashing these
days. If McCain had any support abroad, people would
know about it, but he has none and bashing Russia
the way he has been makes the US look isolationist.

Management Companies
For a country that can put someone on the moon, I find it hard to believe that we don't have any companies capable of managing our ports. Do we need to the other side of the world to find cheap managers?

Anyone that can't envision a possible security issue needs to reevaluate their current events reading habits. What next: outsourcing the State Department to Iran?

Cheap Managers
Why would you want to hire cheap managers?
What is needed is good managers and the corporate structure to invest in that management.
I lay the blame squarely on American corporate management and thier short term POV.
GM and their unions have been so shortsighted for so many years that finally they could bleed no more.
Singapore and Dubai became good at port managment because they had to.
What was the incentive for the NY/NJ Port Authority to be efficient and cost effective? I suspect there were too many palms being greased.
So, I'll add government and organized crime (which is redundant) to the list of why US ports haven't been managed well.

I used the term 'cheap' to parallel the battle cry for the unrequested importation of 'less expensive' labor from across our missing southern border.

As Mr. Letterman stated: "Asking the UAE to run your ports is like asking Robert Blake to take your wife out to dinner."


As Mr. Letterman stated: "Asking the UAE to run your ports is like asking Robert Blake to take your wife out to dinner."

But that is such a distorted view of reality. It may be funny, but it is not true.
Unless, of course, you are just as or more worried about China running our ports now.
DWP is NOW handling sigificant volume of cargo bound for US ports. Would you argue that any cargo that is handled by DPW sould not be allowed into the USA?

Who's watching the store?
How can you be so sure that it is no problem? The world has changed and we, unfortunately, need to also change.

In the 44's and 50's I don't remember anyone having a security alarm system on their home. How many are out there today? Those big oceans may stop a lot of people coming in here, but those big open borders don't do much. It is not just the ports or the borders; it is everything. We have lived in Happyland for to many years. The bad guys are invading. We need to keep a closer watch on anything not home grown.

No one is too concerned about China operating ports in the USA and why is there littly hype about all the cargo trasniting Dubai and other ports operated by DPW?
The DPW fiasco is more symbol than substance.

'America's leaders can make a convincing case .'
Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.

But that jealousy to be useful must be impartial; else it becomes the instrument of the very influence to be avoided, instead of a defense against it. Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other. Real patriots who may resist the intrigues of the favorite are liable to become suspected and odious, while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people, to surrender their interests.

The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop... it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves.

You're wrong on the main problem with the port deal at least from a political standpoint
You wrote ""The problems that ultimately proved fatal to the Dubai Ports World deal stemmed from the fact that the Bush Administration did not make clear how the port deal meshed with the goal of changing the Middle Eastern status quo""

The bigger problem with the port deal was that the Bush Administration had not earned trust by gaining control of the borders and enforcing visa controls. It's a little thing, but the admission of that 4th grade educated Taliban official on a student visa to attend classes at Yale says that the Administration doesn't get it with respect to common sense visa control. The failure to even identify and register hundreds of thousands who enter through the Mexican border is a big thing that says the Administration lacks the will to control the border. Such an Administration cannot be trusted to regulate a Muslim dominated company in managing the ports.

Many other reasons, including opportunistic piling on by the union friendly Democrats, helped kill the deal; but the kiss of death was erosion of the Republican base.

Some of us are concerned about China operating the ports as well. . . but
Some of us are concerned about China operating the ports as well. . . but the Muslims do help to put the Chinese challenge in perspective. Based on their history the Chinese only want to command respect for and tribute to their ruler as the Son of Heaven. In the long run the Muslims want to kill us all, unless we convert.

Not all muslims are terrorists
If you compare Dubai with Talibani Afganaistan or even to Saudi Arabia, Dubai is practically Sin City.
Exposing more muslim to western ideas will bring more out of the darkness.
Jeddah is much more cosmopolitan than Riyadh because it has been the gateway to Mecca for centuries.
Christians had a reformation, Muslims need one now.

You are right!
Light up the 'Agreement' sign.

I still don't care for a group, who are affiliated with larger group that want me, my family, and my country dead, running the entry ports to the U.S.

I agree that Muslims need a Reformation
You're right that Muslims need a Reformation. And after they've had one and worked out their hatreds then we can talk about letting them manage US ports.

If it were up to me I would immediately cancel all visas of Muslims from Muslim countries that don't permit full religious freedom including the right of all religions to freely prosletyze.

Islam will not reform itself if we continue to indulge it's cultists as though they are members of a respectable religion.

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