By Richard Morin
By Richard Morin
The United States and its NATO allies may claim to be winning the air war in Yugoslavia, but they're starting to lose the battle for public opinion here and abroad.
Two new polls here strongly suggest that Americans have grown weary of a war that seems to be going nowhere, even as public opinion in other countries has turned sharply against NATO and its campaign against Yugoslavia.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll found that a majority of Americans believe the United States and its NATO allies should negotiate a settlement with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to end the fighting and not force him to accept NATO's peace terms.
But the country remains divided over exactly what concessions the United States should grant Milosevic in exchange for peace in the Balkans. Half the public agrees that NATO should not stop the bombing until the Serbs allow a NATO-led peacekeeping force into Kosovo but nearly as many say this NATO peace requirement should be open to negotiation.
A survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that Americans apparently are no longer quite so captivated by pictures of laser-guided missiles and smart bombs. The proportion of Americans who say they're following news about the air strikes "very closely" has fallen from 43 percent in March to 32 percent in the latest survey.
At the same time, "public support for the war in the Balkans is fading," Pew analysts wrote, reporting that "approval of U.S. participation in the NATO effort has fallen to 53 percent from 62 percent in mid-April." Those results are confirmed by the latest Post-ABC News poll, which suggests that the war for public opinion on Kosovo has entered a new, more complicated and more risky phase for President Clinton and the allies.
Only about half the country says NATO should continue to bomb Yugoslavia. Nearly as many say the United States and its allies should suspend the air attacks as a way to encourage Serbian forces to leave Kosovo an option that has been repeatedly and forcefully rejected by Clinton and NATO commanders.
American support for the war, however, remains strong compared to that of people in several key NATO countries. In Germany, polls show the public has turned against the war effort, and in Italy, Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema is under increasing political pressure to work for a political solution to the Kosovo crisis.
In the United States, the bombing of the Chinese Embassy and airstrikes that have killed civilians are clearly eroding public support for the military effort. The latest Post-ABC News Poll shows the proportion of Americans who say the allies are "not being careful enough to avoid civilian casualties" has increased from 19 percent to 32 percent.
Pew researchers found that "disapproval of the air war increased by 21 percentage points since mid-April among Americans highly concerned about civilians being hurt or killed by the NATO attacks. Support for the war remained constant over this period among people less worried about civilians."
Both the Post-ABC News and Pew surveys found that in public perception of his handling of the Kosovo crisis, Clinton has suffered somewhat in recent weeks. Barely half of those those interviewed by the Post-ABC News 53 percent say they approve of the way he is handling the situation in Kosovo, down from 56 percent three weeks ago and 60 percent during the first week in April. The proportion of Americans opposed to Clinton's management of the crisis has increased from 36 percent to 41 percent in three weeks.
More generally, the Pew survey found that Kosovo may be bringing down public perceptions of Clinton's foreign policy. Between March and mid-May, the proportion of Americans who approve of Clinton's foreign policy has dropped from 56 percent to 43 percent. "This is the first time since June 1995 that Clinton has failed to get majority support for his handling of foreign policy," the researchers said.
A total of 761 randomly selected Americans were interviewed May 16 for the Post-ABC News poll. The Pew Research Center poll surveyed 1,179 adults from May 12 to 16. The margin of sampling error for the overall results of the Post-ABC News poll is plus or minus 4 percentage points and slightly smaller for the Pew survey.
The surveys suggest that war fatigue has set in after seven weeks of bombing strikes by the United States and its Western allies. While the erosion in support remains modest and perhaps only temporary, it signals the first significant decline in public support for military action in Yugoslavia since the crisis began.
The percentage of Americans who back the air campaign has dropped from 65 percent in late April to 59 percent in the latest Post-ABC survey. Opposition grew from 30 percent to 38 percent during the same period.
Fifty-eight percent of those surveyed said NATO should negotiate with Serbia on terms to end the conflict, while 38 percent said the allies should require Serbia to accept existing NATO requirements for peace, a view expressed by equally large proportions of Republicans, Democrats and independents.
Six in 10 said Milosevic should be required to remove most of his troops from Kosovo a key NATO peace condition while nearly four in 10 said troop withdrawals should be up for negotiation. Fifty-four percent said the return of all refugees to Kosovo should not be open to negotiations, while 42 percent said it should. But 55 percent said a settlement allowing Kosovo limited self-rule should not be a requirement for peace.
The survey revealed that the American public is backing away from sending combat troops into Kosovo. Barely half of those interviewed 52 percent say they favor sending in soldiers if the air campaign fails to produce peace, down from 56 percent in a Post-ABC News poll conducted three weeks ago.
At the same time, the proportion who oppose the use of ground troops increased from 40 percent to 46 percent in the Post-ABC News poll, with most of the jump in opposition coming from independents. Among these voters, opposition to bombing increased by more than 10 percentage points.
For the first time in Post-ABC News surveys, a clear majority of Americans 56 percent say they would oppose sending ground troops into Kosovo if it meant that the United States would suffer some casualties.
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