Bulgaria since 9/11: 10 Years after Joining the US War on Terror
Ten years ago I was still just a kid. I remember I was watching a teenage program on TV that afternoon on September 11, 2011, EET, when the channel interrupted it to show live the exploding World Trade Center towers in New York City.
I visited the USA for the first time in 2002. It was just a few months after the 9/11 attacks that I saw Ground Zero. Shortly after that I went to college in the US.
The America that I experienced was short of the image I had had of America in the 1990s, the happiest place on earth where the rest of the world remained in some parallel universe, and mattered no more for the society of the Cold War winner. In the first post-9/11 period, the Bush Era and its War on Terror against Al Qaeda, the US increasingly gave the impression of a police state, with practices smacking of totalitarianism but with technology that neither the Soviet Communists, nor the German Nazis had in their own days.
But I hardly had anything to complain about – unlike my best friend from college, a kid from Pakistan who had to undergo all sorts of checks and inspections.
Among all other things, however, I am truly convinced that one of the most unfortunate consequences, globally, of Al Qaeda's 9/11 terrorist attacks and the War on Terror is the rise of countless conspiracy theories. Maybe something along the lines of the 1995 Michael Moore film "Canadian Bacon" would better summarize the domestic political play-out of the Bush Era in the US.
I am, of course, leaving the unresolved debate about America's post-9/11 to the Americans, and to the pundits from which you can get much greater insights than my modest opinion - even though the motto of the US Department of Homeland Security, "Preserving Our Freedoms", still seems a bit oxymoronic to me.
Instead, I will focus on where Bulgaria was ten years ago, and where it is today.
On September 1, 2001, Bulgaria was plagued with uncertainty and insecurity. The right-wing (i.e. anti-communist) government of Ivan Kostov had just completed the first full four-year government term after 1989. The former Tsar Simeon Saxe-Coburg had just returned from exile, winning on his own the 2001 elections in a landslide, amidst gigantic hopes.
The still existing grand hopes for fast economic and social progress were one great thing about Bulgaria in 2001. Also, there were 600 000 more Bulgarians, as many had not decided to immigrate yet. Unfortunately, pretty much everyone was bound to become the victim of grave frustration. Among other things, Bulgaria was yet to see the surge of gangland murders (those have now largely disappeared making the powerful, evolving organized crime a bit more invisible).
Internationally, Bulgaria was neither here, nor there – or at least it had a long way to go before joining NATO and the EU, with too many communist era specters ready to pop out of the closet. (By the way, many of these specters have already popped, and many are still lurking, not as many have evaporated as one would hope.)
Given the priorities for NATO and EU integration, the US attack against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001 was a pretty clear choice for Bulgaria. The UN authorized the international security assistance force in December 2001 as the world was sympathizing with America, and the international evil, at least in the eyes of the Western public, seemed pretty clear-cut.
Not unlike the rest of the European countries and other US allies, Bulgaria faced a challenge in 2003 when the Bush Administration started rallying the Coalition of the Willing for the Iraq invasion, as it was about to wipe out Saddam Hussein's dictatorship. (That was actually a situation where even some conspiracy theories probably had some merit.)
2003 was a watershed for Bulgaria since its participation in the Coalition of the Willing by deploying troops in Iraq was, TECHNICALLY, only the third time in the history of the Third Bulgarian State (since the National Liberation in 1878) when Bulgarian forces participated in an imperialist (not in the Marxist but in the NEUTRAL sense of the word) military endeavor on foreign soil which 1) was not considered part of rightfully claimed Bulgarian national territory, or 2) was not authorized under a UN peace-keeping mandate.
Not counting Bulgaria's participation in the Anti-Hitlerist Coalition in 1944-1945, there are just three such cases – in 1916, World War I, when Bulgarian forces conquered parts of Romania north of the Danube, and entered the Romanian capital Bucharest because of the alliance with the German Empire; in 1968, when Bulgaria's communist dictatorship notoriously initiated and participated in the Warsaw Pact intervention against the Prague Spring in the former Czechoslovakia; in 2003, when Bulgaria send troops to Iraq.
Completely pulling out of Iraq at the end of 2008, almost three years later Bulgaria is still ranked 6th on the number of military casualties it gave there, out of a total of 37 Coalition of the Willing states that had troops on the ground – after only the USA, the UK, Italy, Poland, and Ukraine.
Bulgaria lost 13 troops in insurgents' attacks or accidents, and at least 5 Bulgarian contractors were also killed in Iraq. 10 years after 9/11 it's obligatory to ask what these Bulgarians died for.
At least in the medium run, a decade after the attacks in New York and Washington, DC, it seems fair to say that Bulgaria benefited more than it suffered from joining George W. Bush's (notorious if you ask Berlin, Paris, and Brussels) Coalition of the Willing - but that doesn't mean that this move has been unequivocally positive.
The fact that Bulgaria was scolded – together with America's other Eastern Europe buddies – the so called New Europe, to go by Donny Rumsfeld's ingeniously twisted term – by French President Jacques Chirac was by far not its greatest problem.
Bulgaria's support for helping legitimize internationally the US invasion of Iraq by becoming one of the "Willing" did help it win security guarantees from the USA, closer and more well-intentioned relations with the world's superpower, and fasttracked its NATO accession.
The fact of the matter is that a country such as Bulgaria has had little choice in the post Cold War world with respect to its security. And probably even less in the post 9/11 world. Looking at the regional power centers, Franco-Germany, i.e. the EU is neither ready, no capable of providing Bulgaria with security guarantees. The other options are going back to Mother Russia, becoming a protectorate of Turkey, or hoping that the others' goodwill will respect a self-declared status of a "Switzerland of the Balkans." These alternative scenarios have played out pretty bad for Bulgaria in the past.
With all complications of the international environment, in the past decade that Bulgaria has been positioning itself as a "staunch" US ally, things have still seemed clear-cut. Bulgaria's leaders, however, might soon be facing new issues with security guarantees - to the extend that NATO seems to be increasingly watered down, however, and Iraq and Afghanistan exposed an "imperially overstretched" America's "weakness" (i.e. the US is great at smashing conventional forces – long lines of trucks and tanks in the desert – but fighting an insurgency is a different matter, especially when it comes to a democratic society; such an account of course disregards the cynical calculation that America's war casualties for occupying two hostile medium-sized countries have been much smaller than in the past).
That could be unfortunate because Bulgaria's state leaders of all generations love to be told what to do by some great power. For the most part it has been the Germans and the Russians taking turns. The Cold War was especially cool – with the Bulgarian leadership enjoying the absolute lack of freedom – enjoying is the right word because freedom entails responsibility – by being the 101% subservient Moscow satellite (even though some historians would have you believe that Bulgarian communist dictator TOdor Zhivkov's re-exporting of cheap Russian oil was a big deal in terms of independent thinking).
So it might be sad and cynical but is probably still fair to say that the Bulgarian casualties after 9/11 have been "buying" the country its international security guarantees. An important fact is that Bulgaria probably wouldn't have lost the men it did in Iraq if it had better supply and command. But the military might have learned some lessons – with 602 Bulgarian troops deployed in Afghanistan at present, there had been only several wounded in Taliban attacks. (The Bulgarian troops in Iraq peaked at 485 in 2004.)
With all that said, it is still probably a matter of pure luck that Sofia hasn't suffered, God/Allah forbid, a terrorist attack the way Madrid and London did in 2004 and 2005. Bulgaria has been spared the worst of the War on Terror not because our leadership has been doing anything right – Sofia remains an easy target – but because Bulgaria itself is too insignificant a target - Poland or even neighboring Romania carry a far greater international weight.
Ten years after 9/11, Bulgaria is in NATO and the EU, and has a strong alliance with the USA. It has asserted itself as a Western nation, albeit the poorest one.
On the downside, however, Bulgaria remains a vulnerable potential target for terrorism, all the more so because of attempt unhealthy foreign influences on the Bulgarian Muslims, who integration remains somewhat problematic.
Bulgaria's Cold War-era close ties with the Arab nations have been mostly squandered, starting in the 1990s, and continuing with the participation in Iraq and Afghanistan – a price that had to be paid but could have been mitigated. Other factors such as the mess with the HIV trial of the Bulgarian medics in Libya (1999-2007), skillfully orchestrated by now fugitive Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, didn't help, either.
Looking ahead as of 2011, as the effects of the Arab Spring remain to be seen, the Trans-Atlantic (NATO) rift is widening, the EU still has no security and defense identity, and Russia and Turkey are resurging, Bulgaria's leaders and society are to be faced with tough choices.