A somber President Clinton on Saturday rallied the U.S. soldiers who will form the vanguard of the NATO peacekeeping force in Bosnia, praising them as “heroes for peace,” and the White House said he would order the first several hundred U.S. ground troops into Balkans by early next week.
“For three years I refused to send our American forces into Bosnia where they could have been pulled into war,” Clinton told several thousand men and women of the 1st Armored Division at Smith Army Barracks in the wooded German hills here. “But I do want you to go there on a mission of peace. After speaking to your commanders and looking at all of you and listening to you, there is not a doubt in my mind that this task force is ready to roll.”
The troops, who had stood for hours in camouflage gear under a cold, gray drizzle on a plaza in front of the base movie house, responded with throaty shouts of “Hoo-ha!” and applause muffled by thick winter gloves when Clinton promised they would be heavily armed and could respond “immediately and with decisive force” if attacked.
But their mood - and that of their families ranged behind them on a muddy slope - was edgy. There was little joy in a crowd where one women held a sign reading “The President Who Stole Christmas,” and a man in civilian clothes held another saying “Draft Dodger Go Home.”
At one point in a briefing for reporters here Saturday, U.S. military planners said they expected that about 700 U.S. troops would begin moving into Bosnia via Hungary by Monday. They are to set up communications and prepare the way for the 60,000 NATO troops including some 20,000 Americans - who are to begin arriving after the formal signing of the Bosnian peace accord in Paris on Dec. 14.
But later, senior White House officials said that Gen. George A. Joulwan, the supreme Allied commander in Europe, was still finishing the plans for that operation, and in his meeting with Clinton on Saturday had not asked for the formal presidential approval needed for troops to begin moving. They said he was expected to do so by early next week.
Clinton was met on landing at Ramstein Air Base near Frankfurt by German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and rode with him to Smith Barracks, where Kohl sat in a front-row seat next to Hillary Rodham Clinton.
In a brief news conference with Kohl, Clinton said he expected that fewer than half the eventual complement of 20,000 U.S. troops would be in Bosnia by Christmas, “maybe even less than that.” Clinton said he would not sign the order deploying the broader force “before Congress has a chance to speak its mind.”
White House aides said later that they were working with Sen. Bob Dole, the majority leader, who agreed last week to back the mission, on language for a formal resolution of congressional support.
Some of the troops who heard the president Saturday voiced support for the mission.
“If the president thinks it’s the right thing, I’m for him,” said Specialist Ron Cloutier, 24, of Nashua, N.H., in one of the more supportive comments among about a dozen soldiers interviewed after the speech. “He’s the boss. He puts food on my table.”
Other were skeptical. Sgt. Albert Williams, a medic from Baltimore, hid his face in his glove and snickered when asked if the troops had liked the president’s speech, and dismissed the cheering as so much show. He said he was no more persuaded by Clinton’s remarks Saturday than he was when he stayed up until 2 a.m. last Monday to watch the president’s address from the Oval Office.
“Obviously, the president and all the rest of them feel the history books are more important than a U.S. life,” he said. “My wife didn’t even want to come see him if he wasn’t going to say we weren’t going.”
In his speech and later in his weekly radio address, Clinton went out of his way to emphasize that the U.S. mission in Bosnia was peacekeeping, not war-making, that it would be limited to about a year and that all efforts would be taken to minimize risks to American life.
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