By TONY PERRY
Los Angeles Times
As Romanian military and civilian officials mingled at a VIP reception aboard a yacht that belonged to executed dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, a U.S. Navy band played an American selection: the Gershwins, Cole Porter and Broadway show tunes.
The occasion was Romanian Navy Day, but the message being delivered at this Black Sea port was broader than pride in the country's sailors: America, we are with you.
If the musical choices weren't enough, the blunt-talking defense minister, Gabriel Oprea, made it crystal clear in his Navy Day speech, solemnly listing the names of "the heroes" who have been killed in Afghanistan.
When he came to the end of the list, Oprea was unequivocal. Romania, he said, is in the fight against "the terrorists" in Afghanistan until the end.
As other countries reduce their troop levels in the American-led war, the government in Bucharest has adopted the opposite strategy. When the U.S. issued a plea late last year for more international troops, Romanian officials didn't hesitate. They agreed to boost their Afghanistan contingent from 962 to more than 1,500 - even as Romania's economy is suffering and defense spending is being cut.
To the Romanians, participation in the Afghan mission is a good way to demonstrate their bona fides as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and as an ally of the United States, two relationships they believe will deter any aggressive moves by their old East Bloc overlord, Russia.
"The U.S.-Romanian strategic partnership is the main landmark of Romanian foreign policy," said Mihail Vasile-Ozunu, the deputy defense minister.
Fifteen Romanians have been killed in combat in Afghanistan, according to the independent website icasualties.org.
Although it may not get the media notice of the U.S. diplomatic efforts with larger European countries, the U.S. military and political leadership has put a priority on strengthening ties with Romania, dating from an agreement signed by then-President Bill Clinton in 1997.
"The Romanians have become America's best friend in the Black Sea region," said a Western diplomat who didn't want to be identified.
The U.S. backed Romania's bid to join NATO in 2004, and recently Washington agreed to place missile-defense technology in the country, enhancing the Romanians' sense of security.
Several of the smaller boats in the Navy Day parade flew the NATO flag. The symbolism was inescapable: Attack Romania and you will face NATO forces, including the Americans.
Russia, whose navy chief attended the event, maintains an embassy in Bucharest guarded by razor wire. After decades of Soviet domination, the Romanians remain deeply suspicious of the Russians' military, economic and espionage capabilities, officials said.
"There is a big gap between Russia and the West," said Iulian Fota, national security advisor to Romanian President Traian Basescu. "For them it is important to rule people."
The Navy Day display, which included flybys by jets, live-fire exercises from ships and "fast-roping" by commandos repelling down from hovering helicopters, was also attended by U.S. Ambassador Mark Gitenstein, the commandant of the Marine Corps and two other Marine generals.
On Navy Day, a group of U.S. special forces trained in the mountains with Romanian commandos. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is finishing a 400-acre, $50 million project that could house 1,500 U.S. troops training at nearby Romanian bases.
There are also discussions for the U.S. to use Romania as a training location for Afghan police candidates, in the same way that Jordan hosted Iraqi police trainees, considered a successful program.
Romanian soldiers are known for aggressiveness and an unwillingness to back down in a firefight even when outnumbered or outgunned.
"They punch above their weight," said Marine Commandant Gen. James Conway.
A nation of 22 million, Romania has a military of about 75,000, two-thirds in the land-based forces. In Afghanistan, the Romanians recently took control of a base north of Kandahar and promptly renamed it Forward Operating Base Dracula after Bram Stoker's legendary Romanian vampire.
"There is a saying," said Romanian navy Cmdr. Valter Springceana. " 'When you need a job well done, give it to a Romanian.' "