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JOHN M. FLORESCU

Romania's risky role as US ally

BUCHAREST, Romania

WHEN YOU LOOK at the war on terrorism from the front line of one of America's good-standing "coalition of the willing," the world looks quite different than back in Washington. For starters, no one seems to care a hoot about chasing Osama bin Laden -- neither politicians, businessmen, journalists, nor man on the street. Indeed, the last major public opinion poll on the subject took place in March, before the US incursion into Iraq, and three quarters of the respondents were against it. Not the sort of reaction one would expect from people who, arguably, lived under the second worst tyranny since World War II and who were praised by President George W. Bush in his recent State of the Union address. On closer examination, the second thing that surfaces is that when big powers take bold initiatives, small powers, like those in the Balkans, go batty. After all, most Romanians will tell you that they don't have a dog in this fight. People care far more about the cost of living than the threat to the living posed by Al Qaeda. To be sure, this war is not, as the White House would have it, a defining moment in history; rather, this global conflict has given rise to an interlocking set of problems that is putting politicians, diplomats, and the general public into something of a quandary.

 

When Bush declared war on terror, Romania -- with its strategic Black Sea ports and airstrips within striking range of Baghdad -- unexpectedly found itself at the front end of a US recruitment line. With the low-hanging fruit of NATO admission dangling before their eyes, the Romanian government responded with the alacrity of Colonial-era Minutemen.

US troops were quickly stationed on the Black Sea while Romania sent its own force -- a brigade of some 1,000 -- to Afghanistan and Iraq. The Romanian air force even had its transport jets repainted with English lettering. And just for good measure, Bush invited the politically adept President Ion Iliescu for a goodwill visit to the Oval Office.

This geopolitical quid pro quo seemed fine but for the small inconvenience that Romania's good-soldiering enraged the biggest members of the EU, the other bounty Romanians have longed for. France's Jacques Chirac upbraided the Romanians like naughty school children for their reflexive support of the Bush administration and warned that if the Romanians stepped out of the European (read "Franco-German") line, their admission to the EU could end up in a deep freeze. For Romania, having just completed the marathon of NATO admission, its skillful foreign minister was now looking forward to getting on with the business of EU admission, only to find himself on a high wire act between two conflicting superpower agendas.

To be sure, ridding the world of the "evil doers" got quickly lost in the practicalities of not getting yourself run over in the process. The governing class began to hedge its bets, speaking more mutedly about America's ambitious crusade -- while silently calculating whether they had enough time to make nicey-nice with Paris before EU admission, now optimistically set for 2007. Meanwhile with a presidential election looming in 2004, Romanian politicians found that no one wanted to hear any talk about a war against any terrorist.

As unpleasant this dilemma has been for Romania's leadership, they are quick to point out that navigating between the ambitions of superpowers is a Balkan art form that has been shaped by centuries of practice. In the 20th century alone, when Soviet tanks rolled into Prague in the "Spring of '68," Romania decided to break with the masters in the Kremlin and sit it out on the sidelines. And during their 1998 NATO war against Slobodan Milosevic, the Romanians were told by NATO command in Brussels to put aside centuries of friendship and provide clear airspace for NATO jets to bomb their fellow Orthodox Yugoslavs. (Romanians joked at the time, "We have never fought against two borders: Yugoslavia and the Black Sea.")

Superpower tiffs such as these have done much to sharpen Romania's sense of historical irony and its survivalist instincts.

No doubt, the Romanians will again pick their way around the chessboard this time around. Already they are advancing talks about US bases on the Black Sea, granting contracts to Bechtel while extending benefits to France's Renault, and offering hints of a huge oil refinery for the Russians. The leadership here will extol the pride they feel in being part of NATO, and soon being part of the EU. But when voters come to chose between the "Fear Factor" and the economy, there will be little doubt that it will be about the economy, not the hunt for bin Laden.

John M. Florescu runs a media company in Romania.

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