War in the Balkans: US Strategy: Clinton tells soldiers: You won't pay tax

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The Independent Online
STILL RIDING high in the polls for his handling of the Kosovo crisis, President Bill Clinton gave his forces a boost in morale yesterday, promising that Americans serving in the combat zone would receive their salaries tax free for the duration of the conflict.

With the bulky form of a B-52 bomber as his backdrop, Mr Clinton told an audience of pilots and other Air Force personnel that the fight in the Balkans would go on until final victory: "We are determined to continue this mission, and we will prevail," he said to cheers.

Mr Clinton had travelled to the Barksdale Air Force base, Louisiana, for only his second rallying of the troops trip in almost three weeks of hostilities. The base, near Shreveport, is home to B-52s and the low-flying A-10 "Warthogs" that are currently deployed against Yugoslavia.

After meeting privately with service families, as is his wont during such visits, Mr Clinton emerged with his Defense Secretary, William Cohen, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Hugh Shelton - the picture of White House-Pentagon unity - to deliver his address. It was a renewed justification of US and Nato intervention, emphatic expressions of alliance unity, and an open acknowledgment of morale problems in the US armed forces as a result of post-Cold War spending cuts. Addressing the loss of senior officers head-on, he said it was a now a "challenge to maintain a long-term career in the military". "Now we have downsized, we're going to have to work harder to keep good people."

Mr Clinton's other main message was that, despite mounting political pressure, he still believed that the Kosovo conflict could be won by airpower alone and had no intention of ordering ground troops into combat in Kosovo. The previous day, several senior administration officials, including the spokesman for the National Security Council, David Leavy, and the Deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott, had indicated that plans existed for the deployment of ground troops and had merely to be "dusted off" should the order be given. Yesterday, however, both Mr Clinton and Mr Cohen discouraged the idea that any such order was imminent. Mr Clinton was due to meet Congressional leaders on his return to Washington to report on the progress of the Nato operation and also start moves towards emergency legislation to finance the US contribution.

While the tax break Mr Clinton announced for servicemen sets no precedent - a similar concession was granted to US troops in the Gulf War - the announcement ensured the President an approving audience.

Mr Clinton's first troop-rallying excursion - to the Norfolk Naval Base south of Washington - was not the rousing occasion he might have hoped. The poor acoustics of the giant aircraft hangar hampered his rapport with the audience; there was no identifiably martial backdrop to imprint his status as commander-in-chief on television viewers, and his immediate team looked uncertain. Mr Clinton ended yesterday's rally with a demonstratively hearty handshake for his Defence Secretary. It was said by observers to be a visual denial - at least for the time being - of rumours that the two were at odds over the Kosovo operation.