Having missed my flight from Salvador back to Rio de Janeiro, I find myself in the airport?s cyber-caf? with a little extra time to spend. Alas, not enough to finish and type the lengthy post commenting on Amitai Etzioni?s thoughts about guilt and responsibility ? I began hand-writing it on another flight, but finding the right words usually takes time, and in this matter evidently more than with respect to most others. But I found something else sufficiently interesting to bring to your attention – browsing through online news I found some articles highlighting the ever increasing collateral damage caused when you let a US president crash on your couch.
Next Wednesday, a brief visit of President Bush (on his tour d’Europe) to my home town – Mainz, Germany – will effectively shut down significant parts of one of Germany?s economically most important regions, including Europe?s second biggest airport, for the better part of the day.
Of course, the American President cannot travel like I do (he certainly would not have to pay a surcharge for a missed flight), he will inevitably cause a certain upheaval. But having met British Cabinet members on Whitehall without any security staff (although that was before 9/11), I am rather sure that much of the security measures detailed below are either exaggerated and/or part of some kind of strange impression management.
I had first read about what happens when a US President travels in Hendrick Smith?s Reagan era book ?Power Game?, in one chapter of which he describes many of the processes involved in Presidential traveling. The US President?s entourage was intrusive enough back then, during the Cold War, but if it is true that President Bush has now a security staff of about 1000 agents (according to Spiegel Online, not counting the ten of thousands of local police and German special forces police), the perceived risk seems to require significantly more manpower in the age of the ?war against terror?.
According to Deutsche Welle (Reuters), Wolfgang Lembach, a local official told the press ?We have had Clinton, Gorbachev, the pope, Reagan and Chirac in Mainz. But this visit is the biggest challenge we’ve ever had.? All schools will remain closed on Febuary 23 and there will likely be immense delays to public and private transportation. Again according to Spiegel Online (abbreviated English version), many of the city?s businesses have scheduled a day off because it will prove almost impossible for clients and employees to get into the city. Four highways will be closed around Frankfurt International Airport and Mainz, river and private air traffic suspended; fighter jets will patrol the area. People living in a closer perimeter around the meeting area in an inner city castle will apparently only be allowed into their apartments after identity controls performed by American officials. Some inhabitants have allegedly been asked to keep their blinds shut during the visit, others had their flower pots removed from their balconies. Clearly, most people, including some American soldiers stationed in the affected area (according to ?Stars & Stripes Europe?), are less than pleased.
In contrast to the visit of President George H.W. Bush in Mainz in 1989, ?ordinary? Germans won?t see anything of Mr Bush this time, just as he likely won?t see any of them ? even the originally planned ?townhall meeting? with carefully screened citizens was cancelled. As Reuters reports, even to the relief of German diplomats who feared critical questions might threaten the value of images of the Chancellor and the President holding hands. Just as during the current President?s visit to Berlin in 2002, several, though smaller, anti-war/anti-Bush demonstrations have been allowed to be held far outside the relevant area.
Once again restating the obvious fact that the American President cannot travel like anyone of us, I have the odd feeling that the extreme security measures described above are both conducive to and an expression of the kind of ?reality-void? decision making style apparently practiced by this administration, according to an ever growing number of direct an indirect witnesses. And, of course, it is a fair question to ask whether increasing the (possibly perceived) security of the US president is worth the apparently significant additional direct as well as external costs. I suppose it is not. But I understand that the German government did not want to take any chances this time.