President emphasizes global role for U.S.

Veterans Day address urges Americans to remain a force for peace

November 12, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ARLINGTON, Va. -- On the verge of a major foreign trip that will take him to Kosovo, President Clinton used a Veterans Day address yesterday to urge Americans to remain engaged globally as "the world's leading force for peace and freedom."

Under threatening skies, Clinton laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, as cannons fired and flags snapped in a cold November wind. He then hailed what he called "a bipartisan center" emerging in Washington to aid struggling democracies, secure Russian nuclear weapons and promote peace from the Middle East to the Balkans to Africa.

"Fulfilling our responsibility to lead for peace and freedom, and to be faithful not only to our service personnel but our veterans requires us to do more than prepare people to fight wars and take care of them when they come home," the president told an audience of uniformed soldiers and veterans packed into the marble amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery.

"We must work with greater determination to prevent wars," he said.

Clinton's advisers say the president sees reason for optimism, both for U.S. service members and veterans and for his foreign policy initiatives. He has suffered some major foreign policy embarrassments this year, first in the congressional Republicans' reluctance to back him in the bombing campaign in Kosovo, then in the Senate's stinging rejection of a long-sought treaty to ban nuclear weapons testing.

But White House aides say they sense a change of heart on Capitol Hill in favor of a more activist foreign policy.

Congress approved a $280 billion defense spending plan that begins the first real increases in military spending in a decade. It includes a 4.8 percent pay raise, the largest since 1982. The $44.3 billion veterans' affairs budget for 2000 is $1.7 billion larger than the 1999 budget, and includes $19 billion for veterans' medical care.

Members of Congress have yielded to most of his diplomatic budget requests. After initially balking, Republicans have agreed to $2.6 billion in additional foreign aid, including $1.8 billion to help implement the 1998 Wye River peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians, millions more to help Russia secure its nuclear weapons and at least $210 million to relieve the debts of impoverished nations.

White House negotiators are still trying to wring out $1 billion in Third World debt relief, and the two sides are still deadlocked over $1 billion in back dues the United States owes the United Nations. If America does not pay its debts, it could lose its vote in the U.N. General Assembly this year. But Republicans have refused to release the money unless foreign aid is denied to family planning groups that lobby other countries to loosen their abortion laws.

White House aides say they are confident that they will prevail in this battle as well.

"The longer this hangs out, the more embarrassing it gets for the United States as a deadbeat nation," a senior administration official said yesterday.

On the diplomatic front, Clinton will leave Sunday on a nine-day European tour that will take him to Turkey, Greece, Italy and Bulgaria.

The White House will officially announce today that he will add a visit to Kosovo, where some 50,000 NATO troops -- 7,619 from the United States -- guard the ravaged province of Yugoslavia that has become a de facto United Nations protectorate. "I'm going to thank our troops and see how they are doing, to support the United Nations operations there, and to see how we are doing in helping the peace to take hold," Clinton said yesterday.

The atmosphere at Arlington during the president's speech was strikingly placid, considering the rocky relationship that Clinton once had with veterans. Gone were the protesters who once questioned the leadership of a commander-in-chief who avoided the Vietnam draft, who seemed to salute incorrectly and who infuriated some soldiers by calling for homosexuals to serve openly in the military.

"If a president is elected by the people, we do not have a right to challenge whether he has the qualifications to serve," shrugged Dewey Lowman, an Aberdeen veteran who served in the Army during the Korean War.

Instead, service members listened respectfully as Clinton observed Veterans Day.

"When the 20th century began, the headstones that stand in silent formation on these beautiful hills covered fewer than 200 acres," Clinton noted.

"Today, at century's end, they cover more than 600 acres. Hundreds of millions of people in the United States and around the world sleep in peace because more than a million Americans rest in peace."

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