WASHINGTON, Feb. 22 — In the political collision between the White House and Congress over the $6.8 billion deal that would give a Dubai company management of six American ports, most experts seem to agree on only one major point: The gaping holes in security at American ports have little to do with the nationality of who is running them.
The deal would transfer the leases for ports in New York, Baltimore and Miami, among others, from a British-owned company to one controlled by the government of Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates. But the security of the ports is still the responsibility of Coast Guard and Customs officials. Foreign management of American ports is nothing new, as the role already played by companies from China, Singapore, Japan, Taiwan and trading partners in Europe attests.
While critics of the deal have raised the specter that it might open the way to the "infiltration" of American ports by terrorists from the Middle East, the Dubai company would in most cases inherit a work force that is mainly American, with hiring subject to the same regulations as under the current British management.
Among the many problems at American ports, said Stephen E. Flynn, a retired Coast Guard commander who is an expert on port security at the Council on Foreign Relations, "who owns the management contract ranks near the very bottom."
It is clear that the questions involving the Dubai company, Dubai Ports World, have become a proxy for long simmering debates about security and a battleground for resurgent tensions between the White House and Congress. In the end, as Mr. Bush has discovered, the politics of globalization are local and emotional.
The unstated assumption behind the Democratic and Republican critique of the deal is that transferring corporate responsibility for the port terminal leases to a conservative Muslim country that bred two of the Sept. 11 hijackers increases the likelihood of another act of terror.
Some independent experts, like Dr. Irwin Redlener of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, warn of the risk that "a lot of critical information about the movement of cargo is now accessible to new owners."
Mr. Bush, however, has suggested that the criticism of Arab ownership may have racial overtones. And in interviews Wednesday, officials of Peninsular & Oriental Ports North America, the British company that now manages the six terminals, dismissed the criticism as the imaginings of politicians who have little familiarity with American ports.
"We will still exist, with the same workers, and the same facility security plan, regulated by the same Coast Guard and Customs officials," Michael Seymour, who runs the operation, said in sketching what would happen if the Dubai company took over the management role. "And we'll be audited just as often — maybe more often."
Such arguments are not likely to quell the debate, which is already turning to the question of whether the Bush administration cut some corners in speeding the review through the approval process to avoid the scrutiny that could touch off a political firestorm.
Among other battles playing out are whether the Bush administration is spending enough money on port security and whether it is focusing its energies on the right problems.
Another is whether the White House's case on port security is harmed by the fact that the major player is the Department of Homeland Security, whose failures after Hurricane Katrina will be the centerpiece on Thursday of a White House-directed report on "lessons learned" from the multiple failures in the devastation of New Orleans.
"The management of these ports is the door which you walk through to get to all of these other questions," said Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, who, like Mr. Bush, used cargo ports as the backdrop for speeches about the post-Sept. 11 world in 2004. "It raises a lot of questions about the lobbying, the connections and the terms of the deal, and the security problems the administration has left unaddressed."
It is also convenient for the Democrats, who are able to sound more hawkish on domestic security than President Bush. Mr. Bush finds himself burdened with the more nuanced argument that turning down this deal would send a message to the entire Arab world that it is not to be trusted, no matter how friendly individual countries may have been.
The administration's core problem at the ports, most experts agree, is how long it has taken for the federal government to set and enforce new security standards — and to provide the technology to look inside millions of containers that flow through them.
Only 4 percent or 5 percent of those containers are inspected. There is virtually no standard for how containers are sealed, or for certifying the identities of thousands of drivers who enter and leave the ports to pick them up. If a nuclear weapon is put inside a container — the real fear here — "it will probably happen when some truck driver is paid off to take a long lunch, before he even gets near a terminal," said Mr. Flynn, the ports security expert.
That is where concerns about Dubai come in. While the company in question has not been a focus of investigations, Dubai has been a way station for contraband, some of it nuclear. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani nuclear engineer, made Dubai his transshipment point for the equipment he sent to Libya and Iran because he could operate there without worrying about investigators.
"I'm not worried about who is running the New York port," a senior inspector for the International Atomic Energy Agency said, insisting he could not be named because the agency's work is considered confidential. "I'm worried about what arrives at the New York port."
That port, along with the five others Dubai Ports hopes to manage, are the last line of defense to stop a weapon from entering this country. But Mr. Seymour, head of the subsidiary now running the operations, says only one of the six ports whose fate is being debated so fiercely is equipped with a working radiation-detection system that every cargo container must pass through.
Closing that gaping hole is the federal government's responsibility, he noted, and is not affected by whether the United Arab Emirates or anyone else takes over the terminals.