The ugly American

President Bush's clash with Chilean security police may confirm world opinion that he's a boor, but his chest-thumping supporters love it.

By Norman Birnbaum
November 24, 2004 1:38AM (UTC)
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On Sunday, President Ricardo Lagos of Chile canceled a dinner in honor of President Bush rather than have his other guests endure metal detectors and the other attentions of the U.S. Secret Service. Lagos apparently took the view that the dignity and sovereignty of his country counted for something. I can recollect another occasion when determined hosts resisted the importunities of an American guest.

May 8, 1985, was the 40th anniversary of Germany's capitulation and the end of the Third Reich. I was in Strasbourg with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who spoke that day at the invitation of the Socialist group of the European Parliament at a ceremony commemorating the European resistance. The Parliament's official guest was, however, President Ronald Reagan. The invitation to Reagan had caused considerable dismay to many parliamentarians. He came directly from the grotesque German-American event at the cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, where S.S. graves marked the landscape.


The Parliament's president was Pierre Pflimlin, notable for having opposed de Gaulle's return to power in 1958 as French premier, only to figure immediately as vice premier in de Gaulle's government. Pflimlin, in order to invite Reagan, had on his own canceled a speech to be given that day by President Sandro Pertini of Italy. Pertini, a Socialist, was released from prison with the fall of the Mussolini regime in 1943, but had refused to leave jail until his Communist fellow prisoners were also freed. The king and his generals having abandoned Rome with indecent haste to flee the advancing Germans, Pertini organized resistance to the invaders at the gates of the city.

When Pflimlin informed the parliamentarians that they would have to submit to metal detectors before entering their own chamber to listen to Reagan, their accumulated anger surfaced. A group of women members, led by Luciana Castellana of Italy and Heidi Wieczorek-Zeul of Germany (now that nation's minister for development aid) wrote to Pflimlin expressing their distress at the distinguished visitor's apprehension about his safety. For their part, they would undertake to reassure him that they were not carrying weapons by entering the chamber without clothing. Pflimlin immediately canceled the metal-detector test, and the Reagan visit took its uninspiring course.

The misadventures of the Secret Service abroad are not the stuff of legend, alas, but of fact. Michel Rocard, the premier of France in 1989, recounted an attempt by Americans guarding the elder President George Bush to keep Rocard from entering President Mitterrand's office at the Elysée Palace. French agents then intervened in rather strenuous fashion to open the way for their head of government. In Santiago yesterday, President Bush himself joined a confrontation between Chilean security and some of his agents. Perhaps the American president wished to consolidate his support among that considerable segment of our citizenry that instinctively dislikes foreigners -- and whose understanding of manliness makes the primitives studied by anthropologists, or the large apes studied by the primatologists, seem very civilized. Perhaps he was inspired by the example of the NBA player Ron Artest, who the other day took on officials, players and the public in a violent episode at Detroit. He was suspended by the NBA for the duration of the season. But no one has the authority to discipline the president: We may have to wait a very long time for him, in matters great and small, to exhibit self-restraint.


It is not only the Secret Service that seeks to extend American sovereignty beyond our borders. Even before the attack of Sept. 11, 2001, and the liberties taken by American officials for the sake of "national security," they zealously ignored other nations' borders, laws and rights. The extreme distrust with which our present government regards supposed threats to our sovereignty in international treaties isn't matched by responsiveness to the concerns of others. It is now American policy that it is legitimate to abduct or murder foreigners in other countries, with or without the approval of their governments. When other nations refer to their own standards of justice, the recent American response has been to accuse them of egoism, short-sightedness, or "anti-Americanism." The arbitrary denial of visas to academic visitors, business representatives and students is a symptom of the same pathology. It is a complicated illness, combining extreme phobia and fantasies of omnipotence in a megalomaniac synthesis.

Of course, half the nation deplores our increasing isolation in the world community. There is method to the madness of the White House. By evoking systematic opposition abroad, it provides its most fervent supporters with tangible evidence of America's beleaguered state. That in turn serves as justification -- even without colored alerts -- for a perpetual state of domestic emergency. Recall the abusive treatment meted out in the past years to demonstrators protesting the president's policies, or the obsessive screening of those attending his campaign rallies. The attempt to extend abroad the unconstrained power of the American state is inextricably connected to the offensive against our liberties at home.

Norman Birnbaum

Norman Birnbaum is Professor Emeritus at the Georgetown University Law Center. His most recent book "After Progress, American Social Reform and European Socialism in The Twentieth Century" is an Oxford University Press paperback. He has just returned from Spain.

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