(CNSNews.com) - The controversy over a proposal to give a Middle Eastern country control over some operations at six major U.S. ports is bringing renewed attention to the role trade issues can play in American efforts to combat terrorism.
Democrat and Republican administrations have supported free trade as a tool to alleviate the conditions that tend to encourage terrorists, but a university researcher believes free trade and fighting terrorism are, by definition, "competing interests."
"The U.S. has always stood up for a policy of free trade," said Katherine Barbieri, Ph.D., an associate professor of political science at the University of South Carolina. "We're encouraging countries around the world to reduce their barriers to trade, and that's been a key focal point of the U.S. policy in the post-World War II era."
That policy remained constant, even in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Just a week later, then-U.S. Trade Representative, Ambassador Robert B. Zoellick, reiterated the philosophy.
"Economic strength - at home and abroad - is the foundation of America's hard and soft power," Zoellick wrote in an opinion-editorial column. "Earlier enemies learned that America is the arsenal of democracy; today's enemies will learn that America is the economic engine for freedom, opportunity and development.
"To that end, U.S. leadership in promoting the international economic and trading system is vital. Trade is about more than economic efficiency. It promotes the values at the heart of this protracted struggle," Zoellick added.
The current U.S. trade representative, Ambassador Robert Portman, made similar arguments in support of the Bush administration's proposal to allow Dubai Ports World (DPW) - a wholly owned entity of the government of Dubai, one of the United Arab Emirates - to manage some terminal operations at 14 large and smaller U.S. ports.
"As you recall, there was a report issued after the horrific attacks of 9/11, and in the September 11th report, it focused on the Middle East and the need for us to encourage economic development in the Middle East," Portman told reporters during a Feb. 22 press conference.
"We believe that a comprehensive U.S. strategy to counter terrorism should include economic policies that encourage development, open societies and opportunities for people to improve their lives and the lives of their families," Portman added.
The House Appropriations Committee voted 62-2 in favor of an amendment that would have killed the deal. Portman concluded that blocking the takeover, which DPW has since withdrawn from, would be "contrary to what that 9/11 report recommended and what we are undertaking as a government."
But Barbieri - who studies globalization, trade, war and terrorism issues - argued that, to defeat terrorist threats, proposals such as the DPW deal must be examined with less attention to potential financial or diplomatic benefits to the U.S. and more concern for potential effects on security.
"You end up having tensions," Barbieri told Cybercast News Service, "between two key goals of the U.S. - to promote globalization and hope others will do that by reducing barriers to trade and then, at the same time, if we're going to do that and open up our borders, we're going to face new security challenges because it's impossible to have things move faster, more efficiently and at a lower cost if we're imposing these security standards."
The philosophy of "security trumping commerce" applies to more, Barbieri added, than just tangible goods being shipped into the United States.
"If we want money to flow freely and rapidly without restrictions, that means it can flow to terrorists as well as to business people," Barbieri said. "So there is an undesirable consequence to globalization, and the problem is that we haven't found ways to reconcile that."
Barbieri said that, because the law of supply and demand extends even into illegal immigration and the illicit drug trade, security must be given greater priority than it is currently receiving.
"Illegal immigrants come in, even in container shipments," Barbieri noted. "If illegal immigrants are coming in there, not to mention across the borders, if drugs are coming in every day at the ports, why would we think that we're not getting terrorists in?"
After DPW withdrew its plans to move into U.S. port management, Portman told CNBC's "Closing Bell" that he hoped congressional action to block the proposal would not set a precedent.
"I think it's a time for us to take a deep breath and to look at this whole situation," Portman said. "I think, for the future, we've probably learned a lesson here that we need to get more information out."
But Barbieri believes it was not a lack of information, but the conflict between trade and security that caused the controversy.
"They're competing policies and require drastically different strategies. One, again, is to erect barriers, which means greater costs and other obstacles that hinder trade, and the other is basically pursuing how we can reduce our own barriers and get the rest of the world to do the same," Barbieri explained. "How do you reconcile these differences?"
While Portman continued to defend the administration's support for the DPW deal, he conceded the point Barbieri later made to Cybercast News Service.
"Port security is absolutely the first priority. It must be," Portman concluded. "It must trump all other issues including trade."
Barbieri said she does want more information about other foreign interests, like China and Singapore, which already control operations at some U.S. ports.
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