(it's entirely possible I'm just mis-interpreting the Admiral's comments, but I've never been able to figure it out, so I'm hoping someone can explain)
DOUGHERTY: We have the planet, they have the technology. A technology we can't duplicate. You know what that makes us? Partners.
PICARD: Our partners are nothing more than petty thugs.
DOUGHERTY: On Earth, petroleum once turned petty thugs into world leaders. Warp drive once transformed a bunch of Romulan thugs into an Empire. We can handle the Son'a, I'm not worried about them.
PICARD: Someone probably said the same thing about the Romulans a century ago.
I've watched this movie dozens of times, and every time I hear this, it sounds like Admiral Dougherty is making Picard's point for him. Dougherty's point is that the Son'a are not going to be a problem for the Federation, but he seems to be justifying the exact opposite view: how easily it is for a "group of thugs" to become a major power.
Why would Dougherty say those two lines? Wouldn't his argument be stronger if he used examples of thugs that didn't turn into major powers?
Personally, it seems like Dougherty's dialogue is just the setup for Picard's line "Someone probably said the same thing about the Romulans..." (despite being an entirely illogical statement from his perspective). But that would be absolutely awful writing, and I'm hoping it's not that simple.