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    What America Thinks
    On the Question of Ground Troops . . .

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, April 26, 1999

    In polling on war and lesser military conflicts, it's an article of faith that casualties matter — a lot. Americans, the conventionally wise claim, prefer wars to be quick and bloodless (for them). But the public quickly loses support for military action when the number of killed and injured soldiers rises.

    Some researchers have attempted to quantify the relationship between casualties and public support for war. John Mueller, professor of political science at the University of Rochester, has found that support for wars and military actions typically drops by 15 percentage points as casualties rise from 100 to 1,000 and declines another 15 percentage points as the number of wounded and dead rises from 1,000 to 10,000.

    But Kosovo is different, argues Steven Kull, who heads the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland; President Clinton has more to lose by playing it cautious to minimize casualties than by taking more aggressive measures against the Serbs, even if those actions result in American dead and wounded.

    "What if strong action in Kosovo leads to U.S. troop casualties?" Kull asks in a recently released analysis of polls on the conflict in Yugoslavia. "Contrary to widespread assumptions, it is unlikely that this would lead to a sharp drop in support for the operation unless it is perceived as generally failing."

    Kull notes that support for U.S. action in Bosnia remains strong although "a majority of Americans mistakenly believes that a significant number of U.S. troops have been killed there. . . . Likewise in Kosovo, when the three U.S. servicemen were recently captured, support for the operation and for using ground troops actually went up and strong majorities supported using ground troops to try to free them."

    Recent polls paint a somewhat more nuanced and cautionary picture. A survey released last week by the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press found that the public divided 47 percent to 48 percent over whether ground troops should be sent to stop Serb attacks in Kosovo. The proportion of those supporting the use of ground forces rises, but only to 51 percent, when "the same question is reinforced with the phrase, 'to try to end the conflict in Kosovo.' "

    And a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted in early April found that tolerance for casualities had doubled since mid-March. Still, only about a third of the country was willing to send in ground troops if it meant that 100 U.S. soldiers would be killed. And more ominously, the public is evenly divided over whether Kosovo is worth even a single American soldier's life. Still, lopsided majorities in nearly every recent poll show strong approval for the bombing in Serbia and for the way

    President Clinton is handling the situation in Yugoslavia. And about two in three Americans support military action, including the use of ground troops, to remove Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic and bring him to trial for war crimes.

    Kull argues that President Clinton and NATO's caution may pose a bigger threat to public support than casualties. "In fact, already twice as many Americans think the U.S. should step up its military involvement as think it should be scaled back," Kull notes. "Support for the Kosovo operation could decline if the operation came to be seen as going nowhere and the NATO action as too wan. "

    A second danger: Splits within the NATO alliance.

    "Americans are strongly opposed to acting unilaterally in a situation like Kosovo, " Kull says his surveys reveal. "But providing the alliance holds together, the U.S. public is likely to support a dynamic NATO effort in Kosovo," Kull claims. "Fatalities would definitely raise the political stakes, but ultimately Americans do see it as part of America's role to participate in multilateral efforts to stop genocide."

    Welcome to the Devolution

    Most Americans welcome shifting responsibility for many basic programs and services away from the federal government to state and local governments, according to a new survey conducted for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

    "The overwhelming majority of [survey respondents] believe that devolution allows the public more opportunity to have a say in how government programs in their communities work," according to an analysis prepared by the survey firm Bonney & Co.

    Moreover, most survey respondents said the public likely would become more engaged in public life and policy discussions "if they knew that decisions regarding government programs were being made in their communities rather than in Washington. "

    Taking the Pulse

    The Economic Policy Institute, a politically liberal think tank in Washington, D.C., has launched "The Pulse," a comprehensive consumer's guide to public opinion data that will appear on its Web site (www.epinet.org/pulse/pulse.html). The page will include links to major polling organizations and a bimonthly analysis of results on economic issues in the news prepared by Ruy Teixeira, director of EPI's politics and public opinion program.

    Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at morinr@clark.net .

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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