Getting Too Comfy in the Desert

AMERICAN troops have been in Saudi Arabia for three months and they won't be coming home soon. As our military and economic commitments grow, we should be careful that our presence does not become a burden-some, long-term intrusion like our presence in other countries. In other words, we should not get too comfortable in the desert.

The military operates bases in strategic locations all over the world. We protect our interests and the interests of democracy and human rights across the globe. But too often, we do not really consider the interests of the countries where we keep military forces. Our soldiers and governmental officials get too comfortable in an American lifestyle abroad to know the needs of the country they are trying to protect.

With American television stations, libraries, food products and schools, soldiers hardly know that they are away from home. They are like the "Accidental Tourist" in Anne Tyler's novel who tries his hardest not to ever let a foreign country put a crimp in his American way of life.

But this is not the purpose of the American military. There are people who live there already. They have their own way of life. They have their own foreign policy goals. When our soldiers hardly admit that they are stationed out of the United States, it limits our sensitivity to these needs.

In Saudi Arabia and the current Gulf crisis in general, these differences are magnified by the large cultural gaps that exist between our two regions. Our policy in the Gulf must be especially sensitive to these differences--differences that are at the root of the political turmoil.


WE HAVE already begun our cultural invasion of the desert. Last week, the soldiers were treated to their first day of Armed Forces Network (AFN) radio. An announcer shouted "Good Morning, Saudi Arabia!" and woke up soldiers with rock music like Adrian Kroenaur did in Vietnam. Now our military men do not have to sing to themselves or listen to Saudi music.

We might want to let our soldiers sit in military installments in the desert and eat M&M's (that won't melt in the desert) for a while until the crisis cools down. If the situation escalates into war, the soldiers will be there to fight. But after normalcy is returned to the region, it will not be fair to turn the Saudi Arabian desert into a criss-crossed network of AFN television lines and American schools.

IN BELGUIM, France and Germany, our foreign personnel do not know that they are not in Washington, D.C. These people should not have to suffer a less comfortable lifestyle than they would otherwise in the U.S. But shouldn't they at least realize that they are in a foreign country?

The point of our presence in countries like Belgium or France--or even Saudi Arabia--is not to buy a few souveniers, take photos of the natives and then leave. The point is to protect or secure or whatever else we may have to do while keeping in line with the government and practices of the host country.

Yet in some countries--Belgium in particular--we have gone too far in making ourselves at home. Most of the many American personnel in Belgium are based, ironically, in Waterloo, now a suburb of Brussels.

Waterloo was the quiet Flemish town where Napolean was defeated in 1815. A monument on a hill commemorates the men who died in that battle. But those who trek up the steps to the top no longer see the rustic cow pastures where most of the men died. They see the golden arches of McDonalds, the Pizza Hut, the American schools and the Chevy station wagons with Virginia plates in the supermarket parking lots.

The Americans who live in Waterloo have little idea that they have left the U.S. The kids go to piano lessons and gymnastics at the local community center. The army wives fill out their time volunteering on the nearest base or at the Department of Defense school. The army officers drive off to the military base or the NATO complex every day and do their work. They all make it home by seven to watch clips of the major network news and then current episodes of "Roseanne" and the "Wonder Years."

A lot of our military expenditures in Belgium go towards providing these services to the Americans who are there. No wonder the Belgian government is not too excited about sharing the burden of these costs.

Why should they keep American children in their preferred brand of peanut butter when Belgium has a perfectly fine one? Why should they pay to install television antennae so that the soldiers do not miss Monday Night Football every week?

If we keep our forces in Saudi Arabia for long enough, this is the kind of build-up that will inevitably result. We do not want Congresswoman Pat Schroeder to have to start lobbying Arab sheiks to share the burdens of our military expenditures.

Do we have to wait until our presence gets way out of control before we do something about the insensitive nature of our military bases? Must we let other countries, especially Saudi Arabia, become our Waterloo?

We should stop it now while they only have AFN.

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