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SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ

Bulgaria, Romania Pin Hopes on U.S.

The impoverished nations' support at the U.N. highlights the persuasiveness of America's diplomatic assets: wealth and power.

March 11, 2003|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — From Paris and Berlin, the U.S. troops flowing toward the Persian Gulf these days look like the menacing might of an overbearing superpower.

From Sofia and Bucharest, they look like the business opportunity of a lifetime.

While France and Germany have been digging in to stop a U.S. campaign against Baghdad, Bulgaria and Romania have been doing all they can to support it, convinced that helping rich America with an unpopular war can enable them to realize their long-delayed dreams of joining the Western economic mainstream.

By taking their stance early and publicly, the two Eastern European nations have become a target of ridicule for some, members of President Bush's "coalition of the willing" that one U.S. senator sneeringly said is "more like a coalition of the bought." They have risked diplomatic retaliation -- and even terrorist attack -- from those who oppose the war.

Their story is a revealing example of how wealth and power have helped the United States win valuable international support, sometimes without having to try very hard. The same sort of rewards beginning to flow to Bulgaria and Romania are on the table again as the United States battles to win passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq.

Since Europe began picking sides in the transatlantic battle over Iraq, these two impoverished countries on the eastern fringe of the Balkans have offered Washington military bases and ports, overflight rights, chemical and germ weapon protection units, and more.

Bulgaria, once a staunch ally of the Soviet Union, has been one of only three members of the Security Council, along with Britain and Spain, that have consistently supported beleaguered U.S. diplomats.

While American troops have been ringed with hostile antiwar picketers at bases in Germany, Romania has welcomed them as liberators and lodged them in Black Sea resort hotels.

"In principle, everything we have is available to the United States," said Sorin D. Ducaru, the Romanian ambassador to the U.S.

The Bush administration has signaled that it will do what it can in return.

President Bush last month sent Commerce Secretary Don Evans to the two countries to thank them for their support -- and to drum up American investment and promote their efforts to win official designation by the U.S. as "market-based economies."

"I bring the appreciation of the American people for this country's support at this decisive moment in the history of the world," Evans said in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital. "America is going to stand by your side, shoulder to shoulder. We are going to do everything we can to strengthen the economic relationship between our two countries."

U.S. officials have promised to help the countries collect on the $3.4 billion that together they are owed by the Iraqis, and to give them a shot at lucrative contracts to redevelop Iraq after the war.

The officials also have broached the possibility that the U.S. could someday move some of the 70,000 American troops stationed in Germany to new "expeditionary" bases in Bulgaria and Romania -- a potential windfall for the Balkan states.

Later this month, the Senate is to begin considering the applications of Romania, Bulgaria and five other countries to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

For Romania and Bulgaria -- among the slowest Eastern European nations to recover from their Communist past -- the opportunity offered by the war came not a moment too soon. They missed out in the early 1990s when a post-communism economic surge began a revival in other former Warsaw Pact countries, such as Poland and Hungary.

"They were still struggling under corrupt governments and didn't share in the first wave," said Bruce P. Jackson, president of the U.S. Committee on NATO, which has lobbied to win Eastern European countries membership in the Western alliance. When Yugoslavia ignited in a series of civil wars, "they found themselves trapped on the wrong side of the Balkans," he said.

And more recently, as they have moved to reform their economies and governments, Western investment in the region has dried up.

The two countries showed interest in joining NATO and strengthening ties to the West by offering military help during the Kosovo war in 1999 and the Afghan conflict two years later. In the Afghanistan war, Bulgaria offered basing rights -- the first time it had invited a foreign power to use one of its bases. Romania even sent a combat unit, the "Red Scorpions," via surplus American C-130s.

They were also among the first nations to step forward with offers of help for the U.S. after the Sept. 11 attacks. They contacted the White House on Sept. 12 to offer not only sympathy but also intelligence, overflight rights, airfield access and other help for the new war on terrorism.

The offers "had a huge personal effect on President Bush," said Jackson, who was a defense official during the Reagan administration and is close to top Bush administration officials.

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