Bush Delivers Praise, Money to U.S. Troops


Bringing money and praise--and word that their job in the Balkans is not complete--President Bush thanked the American troops in Kosovo on Tuesday, and promised to get them home as quickly as possible.

There is no sign that will be soon.

Ethnic Albanian rebels and government security forces are clashing in neighboring Macedonia. Kosovo is far from stable. And the roughhewn world of the Balkans is struggling for lack of civil institutions and, in the U.S. view, no lack of organized crime taking the guise of nationalism.

Against that tense backdrop, Bush declared that "America has a vital interest in the European security and, therefore, peace in the region."

NATO, led by the U.S., launched a war here two years ago to protect the ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo, a province of Yugoslavia's republic of Serbia.

The United States and its allies, Bush said Tuesday, "came in together, and we will leave together," and he set a goal of speeding up a self-sustaining peace and turning responsibilities over to democratic governments.

The president already had said he would not end the U.S. commitment in haste. But by repeating that promise here, before more than 1,000 U.S. troops, he gave it new impact.

"We're making good progress," Bush told soldiers gathered outside a dining hall at what has become a sprawling military post with all the accouterments of a long-term deployment.

The troops' peacekeeping mission has helped the people of Kosovo go to school, get medical help, find shelter, buy food and schedule elections for November, the president said.

Bush, who had been skeptical of America's Balkan role as he campaigned for the presidency, said the troops are still needed to patrol the border with Macedonia to cut off the arms flow south.

"As we head into the 21st century, we must not allow difference to be a license to kill and vulnerability an excuse to dominate," he said. "From Kosovo to Kashmir, from the Middle East to Northern Ireland, freedom and tolerance is the defining issue for our world."

Bush spent about four hours in Kosovo. It was his first visit with U.S. troops overseas and the final stop on a seven-day European trip.

During the week he met one-on-one with six government leaders, attended the Group of 8 summit in Genoa, Italy, dined with Queen Elizabeth II and was received by Pope John Paul II. Yugoslavia was the 10th country he has visited since taking office six months ago.

Bush had two missions Tuesday: to boost the morale of the nearly 6,000 American troops in Kosovo, and to send a strong signal to the region that the United States' interest is not slackening.

If his presence was not sufficient to make the latter point, the White House issued a written presidential statement, saying, "Those here in Kosovo who support the insurgency in Macedonia are hurting the interests of ethnic Albanians throughout the region. The people of Kosovo should focus on Kosovo."

Surrounded by the soldiers, Bush signed a $1.9-billion supplement to the current defense budget for increased military pay, benefits and health care.

Introducing a political note, he said: "It's important for Congress to start dealing with next year's defense budget now. . . . The Congress has got to keep in mind the needs of the men and women who wear the uniform."

That budget request, he said, carries $2.2 billion additional for pay, benefits and housing, and $2.3 billion for improved health care.

The president flew here by helicopter from Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, about 20 miles to the north. The flight took him over rolling hills, forests and fields planted with summer crops. From the air, the red tile roofs of the village homes hide the scars of the fighting that ended in the spring of 1999 when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's air war forced Serbian police and Yugoslav troops to pull out of the province.

The military encampment, built atop a leveled mountain, has been here long enough for its second presidential visit; President Clinton toured it in November 1999.

Now, the roads are paved. Stop signs are in place, speed limits established. There are bike racks and a chapel. Soldiers take classes offered locally by the University of Maryland and via Internet by the City College of Chicago, a military spokesman said.

While her husband attended military briefings, First Lady Laura Bush visited a computer center and touched a "send" button to dispatch a pre-typed get-well wish via e-mail to Sgt. Richard Casini of Mannoth, W. Va. Three weeks ago, he suffered a severe leg injury when a land mine blew up while he was on patrol near the border with Macedonia about 25 miles away. He is being treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

There were other reminders of the tensions that remain here. Members of Bush's group were warned not to step off paved areas at the Pristina airport, because land mines may still be present. Karl Rove, the president's top political advisor, reported that he and others accompanying Bush were given flak jackets to wear during their helicopter flight. He did not say whether the president also was given one.

The soldiers carry their rifles wherever they go on the base, although they removed their ammunition clips before they filed into the courtyard for the president's 10-minute speech. They patrol the mountains and forests, and regularly intercept gun smugglers. And although their mission does not take them into Macedonia, efforts to maintain a cease-fire there between ethnic Albanian rebels and government units are regularly interrupted by gunfire.

But then they return to the base, and can stop by the cappuccino bar or borrow books--from Colin L. Powell's "My American Journey" to Jack Kerouac's "On the Road"--from a library.

The troops are on six-month rotations; during the changeover, the camp becomes Kosovo's third-largest city.

Staff Sgt. Jeff Stoner, 29, of Greenfield, Ohio, came up from Camp Vitina, close enough to the Macedonian border to see tracer rounds from the fighting near there when he is on patrol.

"It's a pretty big morale booster for everybody," he said of the president's visit. "Everybody sees he's coming to support us."

Bush did his best to cheer the troops: He called them "dogface soldiers," a term of endearment, and he put some effort into their chant of "oo-AH."

He recognized, however, that he had competition in morale-building.

"I realize that on July 4, you had the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders," he said, prompting applause and cheers as raucous as any during the afternoon.

"I don't look quite as pretty," he said, "but I am from Texas."

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