It's March Madness time, and not just in college basketball. Washington is having its own version, where it's now a jump ball over national security. Up for grabs is the contest to see who gets to define what national security even means anymore.
Think of it this way: The fallout of the Dubai ports deal is shifting American politics from a post-9/11 era to a post-post-9/11 era. New sensibilities and ideas are required.
The winner gets a prize, too: The person with the clearest new vision of national security will probably be the next President of the United States.
The position of security definer is vacant because of the complete collapse of President Bush. The public didn't like a lot of things about his presidency, but a narrow majority of Americans still regarded Bush as the gold standard for the war on terror.
That sliver of trust was severed by his stubborn and clumsy support of the port deal. Even before the company threw in the towel Thursday, Bush was taking a pounding, with 70% of the public opposed to the deal. That rejection was contagious, with two polls showing support for his war on terror dropping to 43%. That's a drop of nine percentage points in one survey and four points in another.
Bush has the Oval Office lease for almost three more years, but it is hard to see how he recovers. One observer compared the way even the GOP was abandoning him to a run on a bank.
Politically, his loss is everybody else's gain. Democrats are in their best position in five years, but so are other Republicans who want to be President. The historic doubts Americans have about Dems on security could be a boost for a fresh, pro-security Republican with no ties to Bush policies.
But the winner better be careful about what he, or she, asks for. Whoever gets the chance to redefine national security also gets responsibility for keeping America safe and prosperous. With isolation not an option, the port deal points up the substantive complexities ahead.
Generic policy questions about foreign ownership quickly turn specific. Should the Chinese company running California ports be barred? Was it a mistake to allow another Chinese company to buy a computing unit from IBM? Was it wrong to approve a Hong Kong-Singapore firm's purchase of a majority stake in Global Crossing, the telecom giant? What about an Indian firm's bid to buy undersea communication cables from Tyco?
In a global economy, there is no limit to the real or potential security issues — depending on how you define security. And it's an especially tricky issue when it involves Arab governments.
Is Bush right that we must encourage moderate Mideast governments? If so, how do we distinguish "good Arabs" from "bad Arabs?" Or is merely asking the question a form of Islamophobia?
How long does it take to become an ally? Not long ago, the United Arab Emirates was a way station for black-market nuclear materials being shipped from Pakistan. Yet now the UAE services more American military ships than any country in the world, Bush said Friday. Does that erase the past?
Then there's the politics of security. Even if you have a clear vision of how to navigate the substance, how do you bring along a fickle public that expects both peace and prosperity?
Good questions all. And I'm not aware of a single slam-dunk answer.