War by Numbers

Making government work better.
April 17 1999 3:30 AM

War by Numbers

The president may grow faint at the sight of blood, but the polls show that the people don't.

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Do Americans grow faint at the sight of their own blood? Certainly the poll-watching White House thinks so. Congressional leaders from both parties are now urging the president not to "rule out any option." Still, Clinton insists that "he has no intention" of committing ground troops to the Kosovo war front and remains convinced that airstrikes alone can persuade Serb forces to swear off their favorite pastime of rape-and-pillage.

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Of course it is possible that the parsable president sees political advantage in allowing Congress and the public to push him into a ground conflict of uncertain cost and consequence (Who knows the true meaning of "has no intention"?). But the White House may also be misreading public attitudes. Polls taken during U.S. military engagements from World War II through Bosnia suggest that the U.S. public is pretty tough--tougher probably than our misty-eyed commander in chief.

True, pundits such as Andy Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, have repeatedly warned that the public will cool once U.S. casualties are incurred. During the first week of the NATO bombing of Serbia, the White House got scant comfort from the public. Polls showed the expected "patriotic bounce" when the action started but it was relatively small and evanescent. In the last week of March, only slightly more than 50 percent of Americans approved of the president's handling of the situation--a far cry from the 80 percent plus who applauded President Bush's 1991 bombing of Iraq. This despite the fact that the conflict had most of the hallmarks that, historically, have made for American support for military interventions: humanitarian purpose, concerted allied action (usually good in itself for a 10-point boost in the polls), and an identifiable villain.

Still, that initial lukewarm response didn't surprise polling experts. The American Enterprise Institute's Karlyn Bowman, for example, pointed out that Americans are always wary about putting troops in harm's way especially when U.S. interests aren't well understood. And, despite his lingering credibility problems on foreign policy, Clinton did manage to rally some 70 percent of the public behind his February airstrikes on Iraq. "Perhaps that's because the public is more familiar with the Saddam issue," Bowman noted, "Kosovo is less clear-cut."

Since then, however, public opinion has gradually toughened. And that doesn't surprise the experts either. Even at the start of the bombing the public was remarkably realistic. In a March 25-26 Newsweek poll, while only 53 percent then approved of the airstrikes, 60 percent agreed ground forces would be required to persuade Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to back down. Expectations that American lives would be lost even in an air campaign have ranged from the high 60s to the low 80s. Still, support for the actual use of ground troops hovered in the lower 40s.

Then came a week saturated with coverage of Serb atrocities and a very sharp rise in public attention to the conflict. A Newsweek poll taken April 1-2--partly before confirmation of the capture of three U.S. soldiers on the Macedonian border--showed that support for the airstrikes had risen to 68 percent. And a majority, 54 percent, expressed strong or moderate support for the use of ground troops to end the conflict (83 percent supported sending soldiers to rescue any U.S. prisoners of war). By April 5, a Washington Post/ABC poll found 55 percent support for taking to the ground. Two days later, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that an astounding 73 percent said the United States and NATO should send soldiers if it was the only way to stop the fighting in Kosovo. Bolstering that average were hefty majorities of two normally pacific groups: women (74 percent) and Democrats (81 percent). Thus do politics make strange foxhole fellows.

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W hat accounts for the rapid shift in opinion? Apparently not presidential leadership. Despite Clinton's strong support among Democrats, in the early April Newsweek poll only 54 percent approved of his handling of the Kosovo situation; 55 percent thought the White House didn't think through its plans sufficiently, a finding supported by a New York Times/CBS News poll taken April 5-6. The Times poll, however, also found majority support for ground troops if needed to stop ethnic cleansing or to drive Milosevic from power, and the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll (April 8) shows 57 percent supporting ground troop operations if airstrikes fail to deter the Serbs.

Obviously, horrifying footage of refugees played a role in rallying the public. But perhaps Americans are not the wimps that the pols--and the Pentagon--sometimes seem to think.

Steven Kull, director of the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes, points to his own studies and a recent RAND study showing that from World War II through Bosnia, public support for bellicose action often surges in the face of U.S. casualties. Public support for U.S. involvement in the 1991 Persian Gulf War remained at very high levels even at the start of ground combat operations in which most Americans expected (incorrectly) that U.S. casualties would be high. In the Somalia intervention, high initial public approval of the humanitarian aims had faded by 1993 as the public came to perceive that the United States had wandered into the middle of a long-running civil war. Still, support for strong action actually rose briefly after the deaths of 18 U.S. soldiers.

But, says Kull, "One would not expect a real bounce until you see some signs of success." What jades the public on military intervention in civil wars such as Korea, Vietnam, and Somalia is the prospect that the sacrifice in lives and treasure may be in vain. Serbs may find solidarity in the memory of defeats past and present, but when it comes to rallying America, nothing succeeds like success.

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