It seemed like a sideshow at the time, but the incident in Santiago last weekend in which U.S. President George W. Bush intervened to “rescue” one of his Secret Service agents from a scuffle with Chilean police has been mushrooming all week. In retrospect, that melee — and a dispute last Sunday involving U.S. security requirements for a Chilean banquet for Mr. Bush — almost overshadows the serious stuff on the agenda for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, which the president was in Chile to attend.
The double clash over security and protocol wasn’t just gossip-column fodder, either. As front-page editors quickly grasped, two seemingly trivial incidents brought into dramatic focus the gap between the way the United States sees itself and the way other countries often see it.
The image of the ugly American abroad is, of course, as old as the America’s history as a superpower and has reflected others’ envy and misunderstanding as often as American misdemeanors. Yet that image has worsened during Mr. Bush’s tenure, and it is to be hoped that the spats in Santiago will prompt the administration to pay more attention to the potential offensiveness of its attitudes. It is not just about being in the right — as appears to have been the case in the intervention incident. It is also about being sensitive to appearances and feelings: to how, for instance, a foreign government’s police force feels when a massive U.S. presidential security contingent blows into town and proceeds to take over the place. Might that have had something to do with the Chileans’ antagonism toward their U.S. counterparts?
The facts of what happened are not in dispute. Last Saturday night, a U.S. Secret Service agent was prevented by Chilean security officials from following the president and Mrs. Bush into a banquet hall for a summit dinner. Hearing the fracas that ensued, the president returned to the entrance and personally extracted the agent from the crowd. He then walked back into the hall, looking “enormously pleased with himself,” according to a Washington Post reporter. While Mr. Bush pronounced the evening “fabulous,” the U.S. ambassador to Chile later officially complained that “security procedures previously agreed upon had not been followed by Chilean police,” and an understanding was reportedly reached that it would not happen again.
The next night, Chilean President Ricardo Lagos drastically downsized a planned dinner in Mr. Bush’s honor after U.S. officials insisted that all invitees pass through U.S.-manned metal detectors. A Chilean Foreign Ministry official quoted Mr. Lagos as saying, “I won’t let them do that to my guests.” U.S. officials did not dispute the Chilean account.
While both sides have agreed to consider the incidents closed, there is no question that damage was done. Chilean papers described Mr. Bush as a “cowboy” and denounced his intervention as “a total breach of protocol.” And the New York Times quoted a Chilean who had been scheduled to attend Sunday’s dinner as asking in disbelief: “Can you imagine someone like the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court having to submit to an inspection by gringo security agents in order to get into our own seat of government?”
In the U.S., meanwhile, news accounts played up Mr. Bush’s action, generally in a cautiously admiring tone, and played down the dispute over the dinner-guest screening. Bias showed up in unexpected places. The Washington Post, for example, concluded its eyewitness report on the Saturday melee on a surprisingly jingoistic note: “White House officials did not say much about the Chilean hospitality, but one aide ventured a prediction: Lagos need not watch his mail for an invitation to Mr. Bush’s ranch.”
One can only marvel at the arrogance of the assumption that Mr. Lagos would want such an invitation in the first place.
To be fair, there is nothing either new or unreasonable in the basic U.S. approach to presidential security overseas. The Secret Service’s mission dates back to 1901, when Congress authorized it to provide round-the-clock protection for U.S. presidents after the assassination of President William McKinley. Under the terms of that mandate, the service is specifically directed to protect official representatives of the U.S. performing special missions abroad, which would include the president during state visits.
Foreign governments understand and respect that. The problem lies not so much in what American security personnel do as in how they do it. The Chilean guards were obviously feeling offended long before they harassed Mr. Bush’s agent. Instead of congratulating itself on their comeuppance, the White House should perhaps be asking who and what had offended them. That’s called winning friends and influencing people.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.