Biden Excels Abroad
Obama’s VEEP: Smart, Agressive and Experienced
Barack Obama’s selection of Joseph Biden as his vice presidential running mate is being analyzed for whether it will unite the Democratic Party or help the ticket win in November.
But the larger question is, what will Biden bring to the job if elected? We’ve seen over the past eight years with Richard Cheney how a smart, aggressive and experienced vice president who is respected by the president can have a major impact on our lives. Biden is clearly all of those things. So if the Democrats win the White House, how would Biden approach the job?
I got a chance to see his leadership style up close in September 1999. I was then ambassador to Romania, and we were dealing with the aftermath of NATO’s successful efforts to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. American officials were stopping in Bucharest to thank the Romanians for their support, and to figure out where the Balkans were headed in the coming years.
Unlike other visitors, whose approach was helpful but remarkably relaxed, Biden was a whirlwind of inquiry from the time he landed at Otopeni airport. On the 20 minute drive into the city, he quizzed me on Romanian attitudes, the status of various government leaders, and the inside story on Romania’s foreign policy toward Slobodan Milosevic, who was still in power next door in Yugoslavia. Because Biden has known all the major Romanian leaders since before the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was ousted in 1989, the questions were Ph.D. level, not Romania 101.
In his meetings with President Emil Constantinescu and others, he thanked them for supporting NATO and then drilled in on Milosevic. How strong did they think he was in Yugoslavia after the war? How did they evaluate the various leaders of the democratic opposition there (whom he asked about name by name, since he knew them personally, too)?
He exuded a passion for helping Serbians move toward a democratic future. I also got a running commentary on his talks with former President Bill Clinton over how much military force to use during the war. In the end, air power and diplomacy won the day for NATO. There was no ground invasion. Not a single U.S. soldier died in combat.
But Biden was already concerned that the U.S.’s use of precision munitions would create destabilizing fear in China and other countries. He was looking around the next corner.
In most of our meetings, Romanian leaders reiterated their strong interest in joining NATO. At lunch in my house with opposition party leaders, one of them said that NATO membership was important to their country for a reason I’d never heard before.
"If we’re in NATO, we won’t 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 that’s why you want to get into NATO, I’ll make sure you never do!"
Cooler heads assured Biden -- and me -- that the gentleman had misspoken and that Romanians were committed to good relations with their Hungarian minority. And they were right. When the opposition party came to power a year later, the Hungarian party supported the new government. In 2004, Romania joined NATO -- with Mr. Biden’s support.
What struck me was the frankness and passion Biden brought to U.S. foreign policy. He knew when to say the right thing in the right way. And the Romanians 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 Biden had met him before. Biden grilled him on Serbian politics, a subject Roman knew a lot about.
In fact, the Serbian democratic leader that Roman had urged the U.S. to work with helped defeat Milosevic in the 2000 elections. Those elections brought pro-Western democrats to power. Biden asked the right questions of the right guy.
But as we came out of the meeting, Biden said to me, "What’s 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 committee chairmanship.
"He’s got some big problem on his mind. Do you know what it is?" he asked me.
I was amazed. Without knowing the latest inside politics, Biden had read Mr. Roman’s body language and knew he was under incredible stress. Roman was under great pressure because public support for the coalition government, which included his party, was plummeting. Several months later, he brought down the government, replaced the prime minister and took over the foreign minister’s job himself. Roman’s party ended up surviving the next election, but found itself out of power in the opposition.
Biden has better intuition about other politicians, American or foreign, than any elected official I’ve ever met. That gift will help President Obama with his ambitious domestic program as much as it will help in protecting America’s security.
Jim Rosapepe, a Democratic state senator in Maryland, was U.S. ambassador to Romania from 1998-2001. This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal Aug. 26. It appears here with permission of the author.