Bearing gifts of Hershey bars and Coca-Cola, President Clinton on Saturday paid a morale-boosting visit to U.S. troops in Bosnia.
The good news for Clinton was that the troops’ only complaints seemed to be about lousy food, Spartan living conditions and mud everywhere.
With only one non-fatal casualty thus far, the U.S. peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, now in its 30th day, is going better than many of its planners had dared hope.
Some 8,245 troops are now on the ground in Bosnia; another 12,000 are expected.
For the president, the visit was an elaborate photo opportunity, the payoff on the Dayton agreement, which has brought a still untested peace to the Balkans.
Wearing a brown leather bomber jacket, the president spoke from a podium decorated with sandbags and camouflage webbing. An impressive array of Bradley fighting vehicles and Apache helicopters were brought in to complete the backdrop.
“The Bosnian people have chosen peace, but they cannot do it alone,” he told the 850 troops assembled on the tarmac. “… Around the world, people look to America - not just because of our size and strength - but because of what we stand for and what we’re willing to stand against.”
Clinton told the troops that how effectively they carried out their mission would “make the difference between a war that starts again and peace that takes hold.”
Bad weather and security concerns limited the scope of the president’s first visit to Bosnia. Fog in Tuzla forced the presidential party to rearrange its schedule and wait out the weather in Taszar, Hungary, a major staging area for U.S. troops on their way to Bosnia.
There, Clinton chatted with soldiers in a makeshift mess hall with wood floors and a tarp roof.
“I’d like to be able to report that when you get (to Tuzla), you will find deluxe accommodations,” he said to peals of laughter. “But even for a political leader, that’s stretching the truth.”
In Bosnia, the president was on the ground for about three hours and never left the confines of the Tuzla air base, headquarters for the U.S. command.
But for soldiers on the ground, the immediate concerns are more mundane, and Clinton’s folksy references to army life “hit the nail on the head,” according to Airman James Zoller, 23, of Spokane.
“He talked about what it’s like to be here - mud, cold and doing the same thing day after day,” Zoller said.
“It means a lot to me. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a president in person, and I like the idea of him coming all the way to Bosnia to see what it’s like for us,” he said.
Before his speech, Clinton had a half-hour informal meeting with paratroopers from the 325th Airborne. The session, which was held in an old hangar on the outskirts of the air base, was closed to the media and senior military officers.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Thomas Meere, 30, of Bolingbrook, Ill., said after the visit that Clinton’s speech had eased some of his doubts about the mission.
“In the military, we didn’t want to get involved in this place because - well, it’s just plain dangerous. And when you only send 20,000 troops, it’s like, ‘How committed to peace are we?”’ he said.
“When we heard all the stuff in Congress with the Republicans, we were not sure of the response we were going to get from the American public,” Meere said.
“The speech told me we have his support, and that the American people support us from the top down.”
Clinton left after nightfall and arrived in Washington shortly before midnight, gaining time as he flew across the Atlantic.