- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 29, 2006

Ruckus in Bulgaria

It is in the nature of diplomats to write their treatises and agreements in obscure and convoluted language, seemingly designed to bore any casual reader to sleep before he or she can take any offense.

And it is in the nature of journalists to try to strip away that verbiage and describe the agreements in direct, clear prose.

But when that process verges on oversimplification — resulting in embarrassment for a friendly government and more than 1,000 people protesting outside a U.S. Embassy — one is reminded of the responsibility that comes with the awesome freedom enjoyed by the American press.

Reporter Nicholas Kralev had been aware for months that the United States and Bulgaria were working to negotiate an agreement that would allow U.S. troops to use bases in that country.

Knowing that a similar agreement with Romania had been concluded in December, and that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would be traveling to Bulgaria last week, Mr. Kralev redoubled his efforts to learn whether a deal would be completed by the time the secretary reached Sofia, and what it might say.

The result was a front-page article last Monday, saying the pact was to be signed during Miss Rice’s visit and spelling out its most important terms.

A simple look at a map explains why the bases in Romania and Bulgaria are important: Both are within easy striking distance of any number of potential trouble spots in the Middle East and surrounding areas. But that made for one of the most difficult issues in the negotiations, Mr. Kralev had learned.

A basis for attacks

The United States, in all its basing agreements, insists it must be free to move its forces wherever they are needed in the world without relying on permission from the host country. But the Bulgarians had been highly sensitive to any suggestion their territory would be used as a base for attacks on other countries.

The negotiators had finally come up with language that — buried in the diplomatic obscurities we journalists despise — satisfied the needs of both sides.

Mr. Kralev, trying to put that clause into clear English, wrote that the Americans had secured an agreement which maintained “the potential of U.S. troops based in a country with a large Muslim minority attacking a Muslim nation.”

In editing the story last Sunday, I tweaked that slightly — or so I thought — to make it still more readable. As published, the article said the agreement provided for “the possibility that U.S. troops would use a country with a large Muslim minority as a base for an attack on a Muslim nation.”

The article caused no particular alarm at the State Department, Mr. Kralev says. At least one official congratulated him on his reporting before he left for Europe and the Middle East. But when he arrived in Bulgaria later in the week, he walked into a major ruckus.

Our story had been picked up by the Bulgarian press, which carried huge front-page headlines saying, “U.S. to launch attacks from Bulgaria.” Opposition parties had seized on the issue to lambaste the government, and a protest march on the U.S. Embassy had been organized, with crowd estimates ranging from 1,000 to 2,000. U.S. diplomats in Sofia were not amused.

U.S. and Bulgarian officials said American use of the bases would be limited to training and that they were not to be used for offensive operations.

“The Americans and the Bulgarians spent months negotiating every word in this agreement to make sure no one has a veto power [over U.S. troop movements], but also to make sure that Bulgarian public opinion would be satisfied,” Mr. Kralev said.

“Then I come along three days before it is announced and, putting it in plain language, create a firestorm. So now there may be more opposition to this deal in parliament than there otherwise would have been.”

Yet again, we are reminded of the power of the written word.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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