When President Bush arrived here today at U.S. Central Command, he remarked that the place's top soldier was not here to greet the commander in chief. But Bush excused this breach of protocol by Gen. Tommy R. Franks. It was, after all, "on account of some pressing business" -- running the war in Iraq.
A week into the war, the president took Air Force One to this military headquarters to rally the troops -- or, more accurately, to rally the families of the troops and the military personnel left behind when Franks took his command to Qatar to oversee the war.
It was a show of force far from the battlefield. At one end of the hangar stood the president's Boeing 747. At the other end was an F-16 fighter beneath a huge U.S. flag. In between: a stage with a military band, desert-style camouflage netting as a backdrop and banners with military insignias. The crowd of a couple of thousand filled about half of the hangar, but they had no lack of enthusiasm, roaring for Bush as he took the stage after a line of brass.
"God bless you, sir!" one shouted during Bush's speech, drawing appreciative laughter from the president. "Kick ass!" shouted another, drawing laughter from the crowd but not from Bush. Some in the crowd pumped their fists in the air. Others waved flags. Bush was introduced by Franks's No. 2, Lt. Gen. Michael P. DeLong, as "the man who represents the goodness of America, the man who forged the coalition against this evil."
The "coalition" was much on Bush's tongue today, too. The president said the "coalition of the willing," as the administration called its allies against Iraq, has reached 49 members, including the United States. "We're also proud to be here today with our friends and allies, representatives of the 48 nations across the world who have joined America in operation Iraqi Freedom," he said to applause.
Of the 48 other members of the coalition, Bush today named 10 that have been actively helping the United States in the Iraq effort, and three -- Britain, Australia and Poland -- that have been in combat. In addition, he mentioned that Denmark had provided a submarine to monitor Iraqi intelligence, that Spain is providing logistical help and that Ukrainian and Bulgarian forces will soon join Czechs, Slovaks, Poles and Romanians who are "prepared to respond in the event of any attack of weapons of mass destruction."
En route to MacDill aboard Air Force One, the mood was of optimism and patriotism. The breakfast menu aboard the plane offered "stuffed freedom toast topped with strawberries." Asked if that slight to the French came from high up, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said: "We're always proud of the men and women of our Air Force."
After his speech, the president and first lady Laura Bush ate lunch with about 100 enlisted men and women. This time, there was no "French" food to rename, only a buffet from Outback Steakhouse featuring steak, lamb chicken, salad and a few "Bloomin' Onions." Bush left the "chow line" several times to shake hands and exchange pleasantries with his hosts. A reporter within earshot shouted a question about whether Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was still alive, but the president kept his eyes on his meal.