Monday, March 17, 2003

The New York Times' William Safire, echoing other conservative voices, has proposed that the US move its European military bases out of Germany and into some (currently) more friendly countries like Poland and Hungary. This action would, he says, "reward those countries whose leaders stand with us".

Unfortunately, it would also solve the problem of Germany being less US-friendly than those Eastern European countries. Around the world, there is no surer way to nuture passionate anti-American hostility in a population than to station American troops there. It doesn't matter how enthusiastically pro-American the country is to begin with--think of the Philippines--or how necessary the American presence--think of South Korea. By comparison with some of the others, in fact, Germany is a relatively hospitable host. (Need I mention, for instance, Saudi Arabia?)

This pattern shouldn't surprise anyone. Visceral hatred of foreign countries is not usually built upon calm, rational geopolitical or economic analysis. To one who fancies himself a patriot, the permanent presence of foreign soldiers--even friendly ones--can begin to feel like an occupation. And to put it bluntly, soldiers--primarily young, aggressive, unmarried males with average-or-below educational levels and little prior international travel experience--are hardly a nation's best ambassadors. In Japan, for instance, hostility towards American bases peaks anew with each new case of rape involving a US soldier and an underage local girl.

The "ugly American" is usually portrayed as a tourist. But a soldier is even worse: he stays longer, spends less, and is more likely to cause trouble than any middle-aged Midwesterner in loud shorts with his camera and family in tow. The Poles and Hungarians may be warm and grateful today, but give them a few years of housing GI Joe, and they'll make the French look like flag-waving pro-Americans by comparison.

And in Germany, at least, the US can defend its presence by pointing out that, yes, it really is an occupying conqueror.

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