Kennedy School alum Robert B. Zoellick, now the deputy secretary of state, returned to his old stomping grounds last night and defended the Bush administration’s stance on a controversial seaport deal at an Institute of Politics forum.
Zoellick’s remarks came amid a nationwide uproar over a transaction that would leave several key U.S. port terminals—including New Orleans and Newark, N.J.—in the hands of a Dubai state-owned firm.
The Dubai firm, DP World, bid $6.8 billion to buy the British company that currently operates the ports. The Bush administration approved the deal, but some congressmen have objected to the acquisition on national security grounds.
Dubai is one of the seven sheikdoms that make up the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Critics of the port deal point to the fact that two of the Sept. 11 hijackers hailed from the UAE.
Zoellick noted that the port deal could improve economic relations between the U.S. and the UAE. Zoellick, a former U.S. trade representative, said that “economic relations can be the first step” toward closer ties between the two countries.
He also cited the Dubai-based company’s excellent track record on security, and he stressed that the contract was not a sale but rather a lease. He said the lease terms could be changed if the U.S. felt that DP World wasn’t doing an adequate job.
Zoellick, who has served in his current State Department position for about one year, was U.S. trade representative from 2001 to 2005. Before that, he served as the executive vice president of mortgage company Fannie Mae and as a senior adviser to investment bank Goldman Sachs.
After earning a bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore, Zoellick received a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1979 and a master’s degree in public policy from the Kennedy School two years later.
Zoellick, who received the Kennedy School’s Alumni Achievement Award from the school’s dean, David T. Ellwood ’75, fielded a wide range of questions from the audience and from Dillon Professor of Government Graham T. Allison.
In his early remarks, Zoellick offered career advice, saying that “public service is the highest calling” and that the problems people in government are currently dealing with are “damn hard.”
Before beginning his questioning, Allison said that Zoellick had “an almost unique” combination of “analytic capabilities,” “strategic insight,” and “political savvy.”
Zoellick also touched on the significance of President George W. Bush’s visit this week to India, a country which Zoellick said is playing an increasingly important role in world affairs.
Aniruddha Patil, a Kennedy School student, said that “the main reason I came here was to see what facts impact foreign policy towards China, India, and Russia, and the session dealt with those topics and others around the globe very well.”
Zoellick noted after the forum that he “greatly enjoyed it, especially meeting and speaking with students and people from the community.”