WASHINGTON — A long-simmering problem of the US armed forces abroad is about to get worse. That is the relation of American soldiers, sailors, and airmen to local populations around the world. It stems from the insensitivity of the Americans to different cultures and habits.
This recently erupted into prominence when Lt. Col. Martha McSally, the Air Force's highest-ranking woman fighter pilot, sued Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld because Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia prescribed an off-base dress code for Air Force women: They had to be covered head-to-toe.
The Pentagon has since caved on this issue, but not without arousing protests from Islamic clerics and Saudi Arabia's Department of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.
This kind of culture clash has been a source of friction around the world for more than 50 years. It goes beyond dress and beyond the armed forces. In Yemen, FBI agents investigating the attack on the USS Cole alienated their Yemeni counterparts so much that the US ambassador threatened to bar the FBI agents from the country.
In Okinawa, Japan, where the local people never wanted the US anyway (America is there only by sufferance of the government in Tokyo), major incidents have been caused by Marine rapes of Okinawan girls. Marines are supposedly the best disciplined of all US armed forces; yet their commanders cannot keep a few of them from brutalizing residents.
Although some of their behavior is deeply offensive, particularly where matters of religion or personal safety are concerned, American troops abroad also bring economic benefits.
The US spends large sums on base construction, providing local employment. The troops themselves spend money on off-base entertainment, but some of this is undesirable: Unsavory bars and prostitutes tend to proliferate around bases. Hence in some countries, notably the Philippines, attitudes toward the American military are ambivalent.
These same factors apply to bases in the US; but while abroad they tend to generate demands for the Americans' departure, at home they generate powerful opposition to base closings.
The difference is that at home we are dealing with our own kind.
Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, expressed a common view when he complained that the Saudis "act as though somehow or another they're doing us a favor" and that perhaps we ought to look elsewhere. But it would be hard to find an alternative.
In policy statements by officials from the president down and in actions by the armed services, the United States gives abundant evidence that it is moving into Central Asia to stay.
Bases are under construction in Afghanistan, Kyrgystan, and Uzbekistan, and we have troops at bases in Pakistan. Technical support and training teams are looking to long-term military relationships in several countries. The Defense Department has argued for years that this program cements military-to-military relationships, but as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz recently said, its "function may be more political than actually military." This makes it all the more important that the American participants behave with due respect to the sensitivities of the population.
The problem is how to ensure that troops do that. It is easy enough to expect them not to brutalize people; that should be taken for granted to begin with. But not many 18- or 20-year-old kids from Iowa or the streets of Chicago know the behavior required by a respect for the Muslim culture. The Army, Navy, or Air Force don't care about that. They are interested in training recruits to fight a modern war.
Now it turns out that a modern war may require the troops to know enough about alien cultures, at a minimum, to avoid offensive behavior. So as war becomes more complicated, so does preparation for it. Cultural sensitivity needs to be added to the already-crowded basic-training curriculum. The Army tried some of this in Vietnam with its infelicitously named program of Winning Hearts and Minds (WHAM).
Until it is known where the troops are going, there is a question of what to sensitize them about. One way to start would be general advice on how to behave around people who are different. This would provide a foundation for short seminars later on specific countries.
If - as Secretary Rumsfeld is reported to have said - US power is needed to help discipline the world, we had better prepare the disciplinarians to deal with the political as well as the military aspects.
Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.