By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 22, 2005
ULAN BATOR, Mongolia, Nov. 21 -- No wonder President Bush wants the Mongolians to stay in his coalition in Iraq, considering the fierce-looking, armor-clad, horseback-riding Mongol warriors who greeted him on Monday.
Bush visited this country, the home of Genghis Khan, on his way home from a week-long trip to Asia to thank the government here for maintaining a military contingent of about 130 men in Iraq. He became the first American president to visit Mongolia -- and probably the first to drink fermented mare's milk in a felt tent guarded by the latter-day Golden Horde and a herd of camels and yaks.
"Really special," the president said after examining the yaks. "Really special."
He offered no assessment of the fermented mare's milk.
With this unlikely stop, Bush showed he would go almost anywhere to enlist or retain partners in his shrinking coalition of the willing. The president received a warm welcome here, days after the South Korean government embarrassed him during his visit by announcing the withdrawal of one-third of its forces from Iraq.
"The Mongolian armed forces are serving the cause of freedom and the United States forces are proud to serve beside such fearless warriors," Bush said in a speech at the government headquarters in Ulan Bator, the Mongolian capital. He cited the country's embrace of democracy 15 years ago, when its communist government was overthrown. "Now because of the courage of Mongolian and coalition forces, the people of Iraq know this feeling as well."
While Mongolia's troop deployment in Iraq is small, White House officials were quick to point out that in terms of its deployment as a share of its population, the country ranks just behind Britain and Denmark. Bush praised two Mongolian soldiers who shot a would-be suicide bomber trying to ram a truck full of explosives into a military mess tent in Iraq.
After his four-nation trip, Bush returned to Washington on Monday night.
Mongolia, sandwiched between Russia and China, is remote, with arid steppes surrounded by mountains and the Gobi Desert, far from the byways of global politics. It is slightly smaller in area than Alaska, but with a population of 2.8 million, it is the least densely populated nation in the world. Many Mongolians are farmers and semi-nomadic herders.
Genghis Khan, Mongolia's most famous leader, swept through Eurasia about 800 years ago to build an empire that spanned from China to Europe. In the last four centuries, however, the country shifted from one colonial master to another, first China and then in 1921 the Soviet Union.
Since the collapse of communism here in 1990, Mongolia has been building a democratic, free-market system, though plagued by corruption, and has been eager to enhance its relationship with the United States.
Previously, the highest-ranking U.S. visitor was President Franklin D. Roosevelt's vice president, Henry A. Wallace, whose stopover in 1944 is still given great significance here. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright passed through in 1998 and was careful to politely put the airag , or fermented mare's milk, to her lips without actually drinking, then to say how delicious it was. No word on whether Bush actually swallowed or not, but some of his aides evidently did, judging by the looks on their faces afterward.
As he toured felt tents known as gers , the president was greeted by sword-carrying Mongol warriors clad in armor and helmets, hoisting colorful battle flags and mounted on the short, stout horses unique to Mongolia. Dancers wearing huge masks -- one resembling a deer, another a skull, another a demon-like creature -- performed traditional numbers.
With the temperature in the teens, the president entered one tent, warmed by wood-burning stoves, to check out nomadic life. He also was treated to Mongolian throat singing, in which the performers produce more than one note at a time.
Bush later examined a pair of furry, two-hump camels and admired a display of enormous white yaks with their formidable horns before he popped back into his armored limousine.
A few minutes later, Air Force One launched itself toward the horizon as the sun set on Mongolia's day.