Earlier this week, in response to the controversy surrounding the Dubai Ports World deal, President Bush struck a conciliatory tone. Despite having vowed to veto any bill that would scuttle the deal, Bush told reporters on Tuesday, "I can understand why some in Congress have raised questions" about the port deal.
Forty-eight hours later, the administration wasn't nearly as sympathetic to those who'd question the port contract.
Gordon England, Bush's deputy defense secretary, argued yesterday that the controversy itself represents something of a security threat, and may even give aid and comfort to the nation's enemies.
"The terrorists want us to become distrustful, paranoid and isolationist," England said.
"In my opinion we cannot allow that to happen."
This was, unfortunately, inevitable. It was only a matter of time -- in this case, it took less than a week -- before an administration official argued publicly that it is literally dangerous to disagree with the president. I guess Bush critics should be pleasantly surprised that this wasn't the message from the outset.
As it happens, this was the second wave of the administration's push-back against critics of the port contract. The first was a subtle suggestion that those who express disapproval are racists. As Bush told reporters earlier this week, "I want those who are questioning it to step up and explain why all of a sudden a Middle Eastern company is held to a different standard than a Great British [sic] company."
Taken together, if you're skeptical about the merit of the port deal, you're not just helping the enemy, you're a bigot.
This kind of demagoguery is not terribly uncommon from the Bush White House. One need only ask John Kerry, John Murtha, Richard Clarke, Al Gore, or any of the dozens of political rivals the Bush gang has smeared of late to know that, for all of its faults, this White House has real talent when it comes to slandering those who dare to question Bush.
However, this week's tactics, particularly Gordon England's comments yesterday, are different because they're aimed broadly. Democrats may be accustomed to the attacks, but in this case, Republicans are on the receiving end too.
In terms of those who are "distrustful" about the port deal, the congressional majority has been just as vocal as the minority, including top GOP leaders like Bill Frist, Dennis Hastert, and Tom DeLay. When England warned about giving aid and comfort to our enemies, he was indirectly referring to everyone who's dared to question the wisdom of the UAE deal, in both parties.
The idea, apparently, is to bully critics into line. The implication is as subtle as a sledgehammer: "Question our decisions, and this is what you should expect."
The last time the administration was willing to lash out at its allies like this, it was during the Harriet Miers fiasco, when White House adviser Ed Gillespie suggested that some of the unease about Miers "has a whiff of sexism and a whiff of elitism." Oddly enough, this was not particularly well received by the conservative activists who were on the receiving end of Gillespie's smear.
And yet, here we are again. The administration has taken a position on UAE port ownership that, like Miers, is wildly unpopular. In response, it's lashed out indiscriminately at everyone, friend and foe alike.
If the administration's Republican targets don't like this kind of demagoguery, especially when it's pointed in their direction, now's the time for them to say so.