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Anne Applebaum - Columnist

Yankees, Come Here

Rumor has it Americans are welcome in Eastern Europe.

By Anne Applebaum
Wednesday, February 26, 2003; Page A23

Why is the mayor of Boleslawiec sounding so optimistic? What is the mayor of Szczeczinek so enthused about? How come the mayor of Zagan is hoping for new roads and a boost for his local merchants? "It would be a great way to promote our town and our region," he gushed to a Polish reporter. "People would be talking about us; maybe they would come visit. So we are waiting, waiting for the Americans."

And the Americans, it seems, are coming. A few weeks ago, a rumor swept Poland: The U.S. military would be moving some of its bases from Germany to Poland. Every mayor of every town located anywhere near anything that could possibly be construed as a potential base -- a former Soviet garrison, even an old Wehrmacht base -- appeared on the news, advertising the virtues of his region. In one opinion poll, 72 percent of the population supported the idea, in another 89 percent. So powerful was this sudden upsurge of enthusiasm that the State Department felt compelled to deny that any "official talks" were taking place.

This week, the rumors started again. Except that this time, no one is denying them. According to one Polish source, the commander of U.S. forces in Europe, Marine Gen. James Jones (who has been interested in moving and reforming bases for some time), has written a letter to the German defense minister broaching the subject. A local German politician claims to have seen another letter, from the U.S. Department of Defense to the commander of U.S. forces in Germany, asking him to halt all further investment in bases in Germany. The Polish defense minister has stated, on the record, that he welcomes American bases in Poland. Today the House Armed Services Committee will be hearing testimony on "U.S. Forward-Deployed Strategy in the European Theater," which, translated, means "German bases." At least one of the experts testifying -- Tom Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute -- will argue that some of them should be moved to Poland, Romania and Bulgaria.

In truth, this idea has been kicking around for a while. More than one senior Pentagon official has noticed in recent years that the current German bases, home to about 70,000 U.S. troops and their families, are rather far from the Middle East, the region that has replaced the Soviet Union as the main source of potential conflict. The current German bases are also expensive to maintain in this era of weak dollars. The German public is not so keen on low-flying jets and the sound of bombs dropping either, which is why German-based American pilots often fly to Turkey or Kuwait to train.

By contrast, everything is cheaper in Eastern Europe, bases could be reorganized to deploy more people for shorter periods of time, and the southeastern corner of the continent is a lot closer to the Persian Gulf. Besides (judging from the music played in their restaurants) Eastern Europeans seem less bothered by loud noise.

But if this idea has been around for a long time, it is not exactly a coincidence, shall we say, that it is percolating again this week. More than one member of the administration -- and more than one member of Congress -- now believes it is the perfect way to punish Germany and reward Eastern Europe for their respective positions on Iraq. Off the record, they are saying so to their Eastern European counterparts, which explains why the rumor mill has suddenly started grinding with such vigor.

The question, really, is whether these sub-rosa noises amount to nothing more than psychological warfare: the Pentagon's glorious revenge on the German leadership (or maybe, as some already seem to believe, the Pentagon's secret plan to wreck the German economy). The parallel question is whether they will grow silent again if the Germans drop their opposition to U.S. military intervention in Iraq.

If that's the plan, it's the wrong one. Although it will be a long time before the U.S. military abandons all its German bases, there are enough logistical reasons to move some units, at least, to justify doing so -- and the effect on Eastern Europe is potentially enormous. These are countries whose leaders have stuck their necks out on behalf of American diplomacy, even putting their own membership in the European Union in jeopardy. What better way to compensate than by building new roads for the mayor of Zagan, along with a new base? At least the Americans who come to live there can be assured of some unfamiliar popularity.


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