Public Support Grows for Ground Troops
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 8, 1999; Page A26
Public attitudes on the crisis in Yugoslavia have taken on an angry and personal edge as the heart-rending images of refugees from Kosovo have transformed Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic into a war criminal in the eyes of most Americans and increased support for military action against his forces.
A majority of Americans say the United States should use ground troops to remove Milosevic from power and an even greater proportion believe he should be forced to stand trial for war crimes, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Two in three Americans believe that the United States has a "moral obligation to establish peace in Kosovo." Nearly six in 10 -- 57 percent -- said they would favor the use of U.S. and allied ground troops to end the conflict in Kosovo if the ongoing air campaign fails to force Milosevic to the peace table.
Two-thirds of those questioned also said they supported ongoing NATO airstrikes, a 12-percentage-point increase in barely a week.
The poll suggests this shift in national temper has come in recent days as Americans contrast the plight of ethnic Albanian refugees with the continued defiance of Milosevic. A majority of those interviewed -- 58 percent -- said the refugee crisis has made them more likely to support allied military action against Yugoslavia while 29 percent said it made them less willing.
"My concern is for the refugees, and however they have to do it, and whatever they have to do, that's what has to happen," said Robert Dunlap, 63, a retired federal government employee living in Mesquite, Nev. "If they have to go in with troops to rectify the situation, or if they have to bomb, then so be it."
The survey suggests that, as with Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the United States has been fortunate in its enemies. Nearly nine in 10 -- 86 percent -- said Milosevic should be tried for war crimes and 61 percent supported sending ground troops into Serbia to remove Milosevic from power -- a finding that may say more about the public's anger with Milosevic than its preference for what could turn into a bloody march to hunt down the Yugoslav leader.
"I wouldn't mind, if they needed to take him out, to take him out," said Chris Walter, 23, a college student living in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. "I felt the same way about Saddam Hussein. I think the longer you keep the problem around, the sooner it's going to come back and bite you."
But as with many Americans, his anger with Milosevic and the Serbs only goes so far: "If we could send ground troops in, and get in and get out and get a result, then that's great, I would have no problem with it. But if we had to go to war for an extended period of time to fight this, then I would not support it."
His ambivalent views echoed the attitudes of many Americans and pose a tricky challenge to U.S. policymakers attempting to gauge the public's tolerance for an expanded war. Despite outrage with Milosevic and the outpouring of sympathy for the refugees, other poll results suggest many Americans still aren't willing to trade the lives of U.S. soldiers for peace in Kosovo.
About half of all Americans said they are unwilling to lose any American soldiers to help bring peace to Kosovo. Even a third of those who favored sending in ground troops would reconsider if it meant Americans would die. The poll also suggests that support for ground troops would plummet sharply as casualties mounted. Only three in 10 would be willing to accept the loss of 100 U.S. soldiers to win the peace.
Other key measures used to evaluate the willingness of Americans to accept casualties and military setbacks are less than favorable: 46 percent said U.S. vital interests are at stake in Kosovo but 49 percent disagreed.
"Why? Why are we there? Why are we doing this?" said Mary Daly, 54, a registered nurse living in Fairlee, Vt. "When are we going to decide to stop?"
Daly said she questioned President Clinton's motives for launching airstrikes on Yugoslavia. She wonders whether his actions were motivated more by "his political agenda rather than what might have been good for Yugoslavia." Overall, however, six in 10 surveyed said they approved of the way Clinton is handling the situation in Kosovo, and nearly as many said they trusted the president "to make the right decisions" in the future.
A total of 1,011 randomly selected adults were interviewed Monday and Tuesday nights for this survey. Margin of sampling error for results based on the total sample is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The poll found that men were somewhat more likely than women to support airstrikes and a ground war. And half of all men -- 51 percent -- said peace in Kosovo would be worth some American lives but only 39 percent of women agreed.
"I think that would escalate the violence if we went into Kosovo. And that's my fear. I fear us doing things that escalate violence, as opposed to achieve peace," said Margaret Rowlett, 34, a lawyer living in Greensboro, N.C.
Rowlett is a Quaker who said she naturally "tends toward pacifism." But the terror and loss she sees on the faces of Kosovo's refugees on television tug her another way. "It's just a horrendous nightmare. I can get really upset thinking about it."
According to the survey, two in three said the United States is doing enough to help the refugees. And by a 2-1 ratio, Americans say the refugee crisis is "entirely Serbia's fault," rejecting claims that the United States and its allies are at least partially to blame. And despite clear reservations, 58 percent said the United States is doing the right thing in Yugoslavia.
"I think they're probably doing the right thing, but I don't like what the right thing is," said Betty Yarberry, a 58-year-old health care worker in San Diego. Yarberry has reservations about the use of military force. "I think war is a terrible way to solve problems." But she also said "the realistic side of me knows that we're dealing with people like Saddam Hussein. When you're dealing with someone like that, you have to do it their way."
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