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  •   Slim Majority Backs Clinton's Battle Plan

    President Clinton meets with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, center, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Henry Shelton to discuss the situation in Kosovo. (AP Photo)
    By Charles Babington
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, March 30, 1999; Page A12

    With polls showing that a narrow majority of Americans support his handling of the Kosovo situation, President Clinton yesterday stuck steadfastly to his policy of using airstrikes alone to combat Serb aggression, even as the White House received increasingly harrowing reports of atrocities committed against Kosovar civilians.

    For the first time since the airstrikes began six days ago, Clinton made no public statement about the warfare, delegating that duty to Vice President Gore. The president instead tried to return to a more normal schedule, playing golf in Northern Virginia and preparing for two domestic events today: one honoring former secretary of state Warren Christopher, the other underscoring Clinton's proposals for bolstering Social Security.

    As White House officials continued to ponder strategies for coping with a surprisingly resilient enemy in Yugoslavia, a new Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 51 percent of Americans approve of "the way Bill Clinton is handling the situation in Kosovo." Thirty-one percent disapprove, and the rest have no opinion. The poll, conducted on the third, fourth and fifth days of U.S. airstrikes, showed a rather modest increase in public support from the pre-bombing days.

    The poll found that 55 percent of Americans support "airstrikes against Serbia," while 33 percent oppose them. However, nearly half (48 percent) said they will judge the airstrikes a failure if Serb forces continue killing Kosovar civilians -- as they have done for the past several days.

    The proportion of those saying America's "vital interests are at stake" in Kosovo has risen from 27 percent on March 14 -- 10 days before the bombing began -- to 42 percent. Clinton repeatedly has argued that the United States has a direct interest in curbing Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's aggression in the rebellious Kosovo region.

    The telephone poll of 895 adults, conducted Friday through Sunday, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

    Another poll, released yesterday by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, found Americans divided on whether to send U.S. ground troops into Kosovo "as part of a NATO peacekeeping force . . . to help secure peace," with 49 percent opposed and 44 percent in favor.

    From the golf course, Clinton placed phone calls concerning Kosovo to two key NATO allies, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Otherwise, he kept his lowest profile since the airstrikes began Wednesday night. Top aides continued to defend the administration's bombing policy, repeating that there is "no intention" of deploying U.S. ground troops.

    "I think the president feels very firmly that we have a military objective, we have a military plan and we need to keep that going until we've met our objectives," press secretary Joe Lockhart told reporters.

    Acknowledging new accounts of Milosevic's forces executing Kosovar Albanian civilians, Lockhart said: "We knew he was going to do this. But we're going to make sure that he continues to pay such a heavy price that he either concludes that the price is too high and he needs peace, or we degrade his ability to do this."

    Gore, a Vietnam War veteran who often has spoken for the administration on military matters, expanded his role yesterday in the Yugoslav conflict. He denounced Milosevic at a Democratic fund-raiser in Chicago and issued a defense of administration policy from his office.

    The vice president canceled plans for a family trip this week to the West to celebrate his 51st birthday. Aides said that underscores his plans for a higher profile in the coming days.

    In Chicago, Gore called Milosevic the "last communist dictator in Europe," a man who "uses the classic totalitarian technique of holding on to power by stirring up hatred among his own people of anyone who is different, different ethnically, different religiously, and then focusing that anger into a frenzy of violence that results in the killing and abuse of all those families."

    Gore's written statement said in part, "We must stay the course. We must make the cost to Milosevic so great that he changes his calculations."

    Lockhart said in an interview that Gore "has always played a significant role" in foreign policy. "Given the [political] calendar," he said, "that role will probably get more attention." Gore is the leading Democratic contender for president in 2000.

    Nick Dowling, a former National Security Council officer who consults daily with administration officials, said of the White House, "I think the mood is grim, particularly given what is going on on the ground [in Kosovo]. I think the situation, if not worse than expected, is as bad as anyone could have envisioned."

    Because of the horrific reports, Dowling said, "there's a growing momentum among some camps outside the administration for ground forces. . . . That means there are voices in the administration as well that are probably saying we should at least consider this." But all the evidence, he said, indicates that the administration "is still strongly opposed to ground forces."

    Assistant polling director Claudia Deane contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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