But Biden was already concerned that the worlds first observation of the extraordinary precision of Americas new high-tech weaponry, particularly launched from the air, would create destabilizing fear in countries like China. Just months after the Kosovo war had ended, he was looking around the next corner while not losing focus on the immediate issues.
In most of our meetings, Romanian leaders reiterated their strong interest in joining the NATO alliance. At lunch at my house with opposition party leaders, one of them said that NATO membership was important to their country for a reason Id never heard before.
If were in NATO, we wont have to worry about NATO attacking Romania over our relations with our Hungarian minority the way you attacked Yugoslavia, he said. Since Turkey has been in NATO for decades, you let them do what they want with the Kurdish minority.
Biden, visibly angry, rose from his chair, leaned across the table, and said: If thats why you want to get into NATO, Ill make sure you never do!
Cooler Romanian heads assured Biden and me that the gentleman was being misunderstood and they were committed to good relations with their Hungarian minority. And in fact they were right. When the opposition came to power a year later, the Hungarian party in Romania supported government. And in 2004, Romania did join NATO with Bidens support.
What struck me, beyond the stupidity of that one Romanian comment, was the frank, sincere, passionate statement Biden made of U.S. policy. He knew when to say the right thing in the right way. And the Romanians clearly respected him for it.
The most extraordinary meeting we had was with Petre Roman, president of the Romanian Senate. He had been prime minister in the early 1990s, so of course Biden had met him before. Biden thanked him for Romanias help in Kosovo and then grilled him on Serbian politics, a subject on which Petre Roman was an expert. In fact, the Serbian democratic leader whom Roman urged the U.S. to work with became the driving force behind defeating Milosevic in the 2000 elections and bringing pro-Western democrats to power in Serbia, where they are today. Biden asked the right guy the right questions.
But as we came out of the meeting, Biden said to me, Whats that guy so upset about? He looks the way I felt when I chaired my last Judiciary Committee meeting. He was referring to 1994, when the Republicans won control of the U.S. Senate, relieving Biden of his chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Hes got some big problem on his mind. Do you know what it is? he asked me.
I was amazed. Without knowing the latest inside Romanian domestic politics, Biden had read Romans body language and knew he was talking to a politician under incredible stress.
In fact, Petre Roman was under great pressure because the public support for the coalition government, which included his party, was plummeting. Roman was worried about his partys survival in the next election in 2000. Several months later, he brought down the government, replaced the prime minister and took over the foreign ministers job himself.