RHEIN-MAIN AIR BASE, West Germany -- Vice President George Bush, en route to the Persian Gulf amid heightened concern over terrorism, said today his mission to four Arab capitals is 'part of the work that goes on every day ... to keep the peace.'
Temperatures were below 40 and skies overcast as Air Force Two touched down at Rhein-Main Air Base after a flight from Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, with a refueling stop at Shannon, Ireland.
The aircraft was delayed about 10 minutes in Shannon by a flooded engine. Bush and his wifem Barbara, who planned an overnight rest stop here before flying on to the 100-degree heat of the Arabian Peninsula, spent some of the layover window shopping.
Security, tight since a terrorist bombing last year, was strengthened even further.
Speaking to several hundred American military personnel at what he praised as 'the world's gateway to freedom,' Bush recalled his last visit to Rhein-Main --a welcome home last summer for 17 Americans who were kidnapped during the hijacking of Trans World Airlines Flight 847 in Beirut, Lebanon.
'It was a very happy moment in one way,' the vice president said. 'Sad, though, because we lost one of our own to the terrorists, just as we lost two more when a terrorist bomb went off here a few months later.'
With terrorism on the agenda for his meetings in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman and North Yemen, Bush was characteristically upbeat about his mission.
'Those meetings are part of the work that goes on every day -- year in and year out -- to keep the peace,' he said. 'So, in a sense, our mission is the same basic job as yours.'
The vice president is on what administration officials characterized as a good will mission -- a diplomatic undertaking important not for its substantive outcome, but for its message of reassurance to U.S. friends in the Arab world.
However, the trip is not without its sensitive points.
Bush created somewhat of stir Tuesday by indicating he would appeal to the Saudis to halt the slide in oil prices that has caused economic pain for U.S. producers.
The White House, in what was billed as a clarification of those remarks, said Wednesday the administration would not interfere in the oil market and contended 'the net effect' of the price plunge on the American economy 'will be positive.'
Beyond that controversy, Bush found a more ominous element to his trip highlighted Wednesday by the bomb blast that killed four Americans aboard a TWA jetliner bound from Rome to Athens.
That apparent act of terrorism, following threats by Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy after the military confrontation in the Gulf of Sidra, guaranteed security would be tighter than ever as Bush visited a region well acquainted with political violence.
One senior U.S. official told reporters to expect a 'more obvious' presence by the Secret Service contingent assigned to Bush, as well as more open, protective steps by the host countries.
'Everyone is aware of the dangers of traveling in that part of the world,' said Marlin Fitzwater, chief spokesman for the vice president.
When asked Tuesday whether he had any heightened concern about his own safety, Bush replied, 'None whatsoever.'
Administration officials acknowledged another risk -- a provocation of Iran -- prompted the decision to have Bush bypass Kuwait during a visit that will bring him within 100 miles of attacks spawned by the 6-year-old war between Iran and Iraq.
One of the key objectives of the trip is to reaffirm a continuing American commitment to the security of the gulf states in the face of recent military gains by Iran and fears that the violence could spread.
Although Kuwait has felt that threat more than other states in the region, a senior administration official said there was concern a visit by Bush 'might be really counterproductive in terms of the high profile and in terms of the provocation Iran might choose to make of it.'
To reinforce the message of support carried by Bush, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy preceded the vice president to the gulf to hold similar talks in Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. He will join the Bush delegation in Riyadh.