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'Having Dinner with the Right People': Bill Clinton, Jack Kemp, and How Money Is Clouding the Ports Deal Debate

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Lenin's fabled admonition that capitalists are so eager to make a buck they'll sell you the rope with which to hang them is in need of an update: they'll also lease you the ports through which terrorists can sneak the dirty bomb with which to blow them up.

The establishment's full-throated support of the Dubai ports deal is an object lesson in how huge amounts of money can cloud the thinking of people on both sides of the political spectrum.

The latest example of someone whose judgment has been clouded by cash is Jack Kemp. There he was on Meet the Press on Sunday defending his public support for the Dubai ports deal. "You're very against public opinion," said Tim Russert. "Very much against Congressional opinion."

Kemp was undaunted, and launched into an impassioned defense of the deal and of the United Arab Emerites, echoing a column he wrote taking to task those who have criticized it.

"It's the right thing to do," he said, calling the UAE a "valued ally" and reiterating the claim that canceling the deal would, as he put it in his column, "weaken our own national security and our chances for peace and liberation throughout the Middle East and Africa" (Shades of Andrea Mitchell, another die-hard member of the establishment, who suggested on Hardball that killing the ports deal could lead to rioting in the Muslim world).

What Kemp didn't say is that the UAE has invested millions in Free Market Global, an energy-trading company that he chairs.

You think all those zeroes might have had some influence on his opinion? Maybe not. But I'm pretty sure that a disclosure of his financial connection to those he was so fulsomely praising would have had some influence on the opinions of those watching.

Especially if viewers learned that Gen. Tommy Franks, whom Kemp used as his debating trump card -- quoting both in print and on Meet the Press the General extolling the Emirates -- is on the advisory board of Free Market Global, and stands to profit from maintaining good relations with the oil-rich emirs.

I called Kemp to ask him why he hadn't mentioned this intersection of interests, but I haven't heard back, even though I said why I was calling. Or perhaps because I did.

Despite Kemp's reputation as the GOP's go-to guy on poverty and economic disenfranchisement, he remains masterful at the Washington money-power game.

A 2004 Jane Mayer article in the New Yorker on Dick Cheney and Halliburton's Iraq contracts, quotes a businessman with close ties to the Bush administration as saying: "This is how corruption is done these days. It's not about bribes. You just help your friends to get access. Cheney doesn't call the Defense Department and tell them, 'Pick Halliburton.' It's just having dinner with the right people." Earlier, Mayer described how Kemp, while seeking help for a venture in Iraq in 2003, had had Cheney over for dinner, along with two sons of the President of the UAE. This is especially interesting in light of what a powerful -- and politically connected -- entrepreneur told me: that Cheney was the real force behind the administration's rapid approval of the Dubai deal.

Just scratch the surface of Kemp's business dealings and relationships, and all sorts of interesting connections ooze out. For instance, there were Kemp's 2003 efforts to establish a "21st Century Marshall Plan" for Iraq. Among those helping him develop the plan was Samir Vincent, an Iraqi-American businessman who was a player in the oil-for-food scandal, and who last year pleaded guilty to illegally lobbying for Iraq. Prior to becoming involved with Vincent, Kemp had gotten the thumbs up on him from former Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci, who assured Kemp that Vincent was his tennis partner and "a good guy". Game, set, match. For his part, Carlucci is the chairman emeritus of the Carlyle Group, the Bushies' favorite private equity firm. Carlyle has received at least $100 million in funding from the ruling families of...yep, the UAE.

Consulting deals, investment deals, equity deals... port deals. They are all part of the same money-as-political-lubricant continuum. Policy KY. "It's just having dinner with the right people."

People like Bill Clinton who, we learned last week, had advised the UAE on the ports deal. I can't help but wonder if that advice was in any way colored by the millions (the exact figures are still not in) Dubai has given to Clinton -- in speaking fees and donations to his presidential library. And then, as Lloyd Grove reports, there is Clinton's lucrative relationship with Ron Burkle's private investment firm, Yucaipa, which has partnered with Dubai in bidding on some major investment deals. Money clouds on both sides of the aisle.

That's why transparency is so important on matters like this. Jack Kemp, Bill Clinton, and the establishment's cost-benefit analysis of the Dubai ports deal is clearly different than yours or mine.

Pocketing millions may allow them to overlook the very real risks the deal brings. For the rest of us, we have to ask ourselves: is even the slightest increase in risk to our security worth it?

The answer for those of us not on the receiving end of the UAE's largess remains a resounding "No!"