BUCHAREST, Romania — We came here to film a World War II documentary for FOX News and came away with a lesson in leadership.
This capital was once at the far edge of the Roman Empire. After “The Great War,” it was known as the “Paris of the East.” During World War II, the city was hit by both American and German bombs — and abandoned behind the “Iron Curtain” at war’s end.
For nearly five decades, Romanians endured Stalinist repression. Bullet holes in buildings at city-center attest to the fury of their 1989 revolution, which bought freedom with blood. Today, the metropolis is teeming with sky cranes, heavy-duty investors, upscale hotels, classy boutiques, car dealerships and glistening new shopping malls with full parking lots. Yet, for all the modern appurtenances, it is also a city that bears the scars of what can happen when great powers fail to act greatly.
Romania’s deposed monarch, King Michael — the sole surviving head of state from World War II — kindly granted us a lengthy interview for our “War Stories” series. What he and his people endured in the last century should serve to remind today’s leaders of the horrific price paid when despots bent on tyranny go unchecked.
On Tuesday, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — the wild-eyed, anti-Western, genocidal zealot who runs Iran — announced that the Islamic Revolutionary Republic had successfully enriched uranium, people here in Romania began asking us, “What will America do to keep Iran from building a bomb?”
It’s an understandable question in this East-West crossroads, where history has been such a tough teacher. For more than three years before Adolf Hitler plunged Europe into world war, no one did anything that mattered to prevent it. Winston Churchill’s warnings went unheeded by Great Britain, France and the United States. Cases of Japanese, Italian and German aggression were referred to the League of Nations — which dithered and did nothing. When the bloodletting began in earnest, Romanian dictator Ion Antonescu allied his country with the Axis because he believed Hitler would win. It was a disastrous decision.
By the summer of 1944, hundreds of thousands of Romanians were dead, wounded or prisoners of the Red Army. In August, young King Michael organized a coup, overthrew the fascists and joined the Allied cause. He begged for British or American help to save his country from the Soviets — only to learn that President Franklin Roosevelt had already decided not to oppose Stalin’s plans for invasion and occupation.
Historians ought to be loathe to play “what if” with the facts of the past. But present day events beg the questions: What might have happened if the United States, Britain and France had stood together in 1936 and insisted that Hitler cease rearming? In March of 1938, would the Fuhrer have desisted from his Austrian Anschluss if the United States had stood in opposition? Could Romania, now a NATO ally, have been spared a half-century of repression? King Michael put it this way: “If only Roosevelt had told Stalin ‘no’ — we would have been spared.”
Like the events of the 1930s and ’40s, Ahmadinejad’s quest for nuclear weapons is a situation that cries out for resolute American leadership. Last week’s announcement was made in front of a full bank of television cameras and the world media. The Iranian leader portrayed it as an achievement — a source of national pride — and went on to warn that any attempt to prevent their nuclear progress would “cause an everlasting hatred in the hearts of Iranians.”
The next day, Ahmadinejad said: “Our answer to those who are angry about Iran achieving the full nuclear fuel cycle is just one phrase. We say: Be angry at us and die of this anger.”
Until now, the United States has punted the question of Iranian nukes to the United Nations and the Europeans. They have failed. For three years, the British, French and Germans have tried negotiations. But in January, the Iranians walked away from the talks. In the aftermath of Ahmadinejad’s chest-thumping, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that “the Security Council will need to take into consideration this move by Iran … to make certain that we maintain the credibility of the international community on this issue.” She is wrong. The international community has no credibility on this issue.
The U.N. Security Council has given Iran a deadline of April 28 to halt its enrichment process. But International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei, speaking in Tehran last week, said that there is “no great urgency in this new development.” When America’s U.N. Ambassador John Bolton suggested a Security Council resolution under Chapter 7 of the organization’s charter, Russian ambassador Andrei Denisov said, “There is no reason for punitive measures yet.”
How close is Iran to actually building a nuclear weapon? Stephen Rademaker, the assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, said it could take as little as 16 days. Other analysts believe it could take as long as 10 years. Assuming that the longer estimate is correct is both irresponsible and arrogant. India, Pakistan and North Korea all built bombs before anyone believed they could.
We can no longer afford to deal with Tehran through intermediaries and third parties. The United States must open direct, frank discussions with the Iranians — to convince them, like Libya, that it is not in their interest to continue the pursuit of nuclear weapons. The United States has a full quiver of diplomatic, financial, trade and military options. Carefully and quietly articulating these to Iran is a high-risk strategy — but not as dangerous as hoping that others will do what needs to be done.