On occasion, work I do for the U.S. military requires me to travel to Europe—often to Germany, Spain, or Portugal. I wish I could see more of each country but, invariably, I end up simply getting off a boat to take a taxi to the nearest airport before flying home, or in the case of Germany, driving back and forth to a military base.
Like any person traveling on U.S. government business, I must get country clearance—an antiquated practice in which the U.S. embassy in each country I visit must approve the fact that I will step foot in that country. The amount of manpower hours involved on both sides of the country clearance process—not only my own, but also the administrators who format and prepare my request, and then the secretaries and diplomats on the other side who must sift through clearances—is immense. Denying (or not answering) the country clearance request, in practice, means that the visiting official must abort his or her trip. The thinking behind country clearances is that the American ambassador in each country should be aware of what other Americans are doing there. That might make sense in a country like Syria, Lebanon, Zimbabwe, or Laos, but it is a tremendous waste of energy in Western Europe.
The situation goes from the absurd to the sublime, however, in the case of people traveling on military business to Europe, for U.S. European Command requires that each visitor complete online anti-terrorism training and online SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) training. Online SERE training is ridiculous on many levels. First of all, it’s the equivalent of online root canal; that is, it gives those completing it no idea of what real SERE training is like. (Just ask any Marine or Special Operations soldier.) Second, if I get injured in Spain or Portugal or even Germany, call me crazy, but I am much more likely to go to a hospital than scramble for leeches or sterilize wounds with urine. I am also not so worried about roving bands of hostile locals in any of these countries, unless I stumble into a soccer riot. The ultimate irony is that EUCOM upholds this training requirement much more than CENTCOM: I have had to undergo much more rigorous and time-consuming training to stay at a Best Western hotel in Germany than to wander the streets of Baghdad.
The United States should maintain a strong military, and seek a State Department which prioritizes American interests, even at the expense of smooth relations. We need to recognize that if we allow another country to become the world’s strongest, they will shape the international system in a way that causes suffering to human freedom. That said, while we should push ahead, technological and diplomatic dominance never justifies gross inefficiency or bureaucratic procedures with little purpose beyond making work for junior diplomats.