“Why do you say that?” I asked.
“Because they’re not mean, just ignorant,” replied the USAF colonel, embed in one of the ministries as an “Afghan Hand”, which meant he grew out his beard and wore civilian clothes. His politics are decidedly to the left of mine, so I was kind of surprised to hear him say something nice about American tourists.
“I was in France in 2003,” he continued. “Because of its opposition to the Iraq invasion, France was in the doghouse in America. One of the consequences of this was that American tourism to France had dropped to almost nothing.
“But I was visiting [some French town] and I saw that it was festooned with American flags! I asked the locals about this, and they said they were trying to get the Americans to come back. ‘If we’re going to have tourists, please let them be Americans.’ They gave two reasons. First, they spend money across the economic spectrum. Asian tourists, in contrast, only buy from the high-end stores, reflecting their obsession with brand-name status. But Americans will also buy stuff at little places nobody will ever hear of.
“The second reason is that, even though Americans don’t know much about the places they visit, they’re teachable. If you explain to an American that local customs require that he do or not do thus-and-so, they say, ‘Oh, okay.’ Other Europeans may know more, they just don’t care, and Asians are even worse.
“Americans seldom appreciate how unrepresentative the 'chattering classes’ of Europe are of either their governments or their common people. This was especially true in the late 00’s, by which time many countries had elected center-right governments. I spoke with Europeans who had experience with diplomats representing both the Bush and Obama administrations, and they told me that, whatever else you might say about him, with Bush’s diplomats you knew what you were getting. If Bush said something, you knew he meant it. But with Obama? You could never be sure if the story would be the same from one day to the next.”