Clinton praises air power in speech at B-2 base

Conflict in Kosovo `a defining moment' for NATO, he says

June 12, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. -- President Clinton came to the home of the B-2 stealth bomber to extol American air power yesterday, but he devoted as much of his speech to praising American-style race relations, asserting that NATO's victory in Kosovo had been one of ethnic diversity over "ethnic cleansing."

Clinton told a crowd of about 3,000 Air Force personnel and their families, gathered in a cavernous hangar, that their example was helping to refute the idea that "a country can only be great with everybody just like everybody else."

"I invite the people of this world today who say that people cannot get along across racial and ethnic and religious lines to have a good look at the United States military, to have a good look at the members of the United States Air Force in this hangar today," Clinton said.

"We have proved that when people are bound together by shared values, their differences make them stronger and make our communities stronger."

At times, yesterday's event had the feel of a victory lap for Clinton, who had been criticized in some quarters for maintaining that air power alone could force concessions from Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. At one point, Clinton triumphantly contrasted the criticism aimed at him in the United States with the lack of dissent in Yugoslavia.

For the Air Force, yesterday's event also seemed intended to showcase the B-2 as the military's newest technological marvel, and not the overpriced fiasco that some critics had once asserted.

The arrowhead-shaped planes, which are designed to reduce radar detection, cost more than $2 billion each, making them the most expensive aircraft ever built. The bombers made their combat debut in the air war over Kosovo.

The Air Force has 10 of the planes, all of which are based at Whiteman, 75 miles east of Kansas City. Six of the planes took part in airstrikes over Yugoslavia, flying a total of 50 missions. Though that accounted for just 1 percent of NATO's sorties, the B-2s dropped 11 percent of the bombs, Clinton said.

The B-2s remained based at Whiteman throughout the conflict, allowing the two-man crews to fly 31-hour round-trip missions over the Balkans, refueling four times in the process.

"Most Americans will never know how hard this was or how hard our forces worked -- the pilots, the crews, the people who make it happen on the ground -- but I want you to know we are very proud of you," Clinton said.

As he did in his televised speech Thursday, Clinton emphasized that difficult and dangerous challenges still remain in defending the peace in Kosovo. And he called the conflict "a defining moment" for NATO in particular and Western democracies in general.

But as much as defending his handling of the war, Clinton also seemed intent on articulating to the American heartland why this war thousands of miles away was important to their lives, and why the nation should feel triumphant about the results.

"Milosevic's victory would have been a license for despots around the world to deal with ethnic minorities simply by murdering or expelling them from their land," he said. "But instead, we end the 20th century and begin a new one with a respect for human rights and human dignity and international law."

And he concluded by quoting a son of Missouri, President Harry S. Truman, who said near the end of World War II, "It is easier to remove tyrants and destroy concentration camps than it is to kill the ideas which gave them birth and strength."

Pub Date: 6/12/99

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