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Public Attitudes on Bosnia

New studies show that prevailing wisdom is wrong

By Steven Kull and Clay Ramsay. Steven Kull and Clay Ramsay are respectively director and a fellow at the Program for International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland in College Park. / June 9, 1993



THE public debate about Bosnia has for months been shaped by an assumption that the American public is self-preoccupied and opposed to military intervention in Bosnia. This assumption is wrong.

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Some polls do show strong antipathy to military intervention. In six recent polls an average of 47 percent of the public reacted negatively to a question about sending United States troops to Bosnia, with an average of 43 percent favoring the idea.

However, in five other polls that clarified that US troops would participate in a United Nations operation, support jumped up to an average of 60 percent. In one TIME/CNN poll, support reached 68 percent.

The distinction between unilateral and multilateral intervention is the key variable. In a recent ABC poll that asked whether the US should take military action alone, opposition shot up to 68 percent.

The public follows a similar pattern on the question of US airstrikes against Serbian artillery and supply lines.

In seven different polls that asked whether the US should make airstrikes, the average level of support was 39 percent - with 49 percent opposed. But in two other polls, specifying that airstrikes would be in conjunction with European allies or part of a UN-approved action, support leapt to an average of 59 percent.

Presumably, it was a failure to discern this distinction in public thinking that lead congressional leaders, earlier this month, to tell the president that the American public would not support having 20,000 troops participate in UN peacekeeping force to implement the Vance-Owen plan should the Bosnian Serbs agree to it.

However, three polls found that, on average, 64 percent of the public favored the idea.

During the same period, an ABC poll found that 76 percent thought the UN should set a deadline for the Serbs to fall in line or "face allied military action."

To find out more about the thinking underlying these trends, we conducted a nationwide survey asking citizens to evaluate a series of common arguments about Bosnia.

The argument that the largest number of respondents (68 percent) found most convincing is that since the war in Bosnia is a war of aggression by Serbia, the UN principle of collective security obliges UN members to help defend the Bosnian government. Sixty-seven percent found convincing the moral argument that "ethnic cleansing" is a form of genocide and that the US should take strong steps to stop it.

Does this mean US officials can assume the public will support UN-sponsored military intervention in pursuit of a moral world order - and ignore any public trend toward isolationism?

Not necessarily. Fifty-three percent also found convincing the argument that the US has no real interests in Bosnia and that the US should focus on problems at home.

Forty-eight percent responded to an argument against committing US troops "even as part of a UN operation" because "there is too great a chance of becoming bogged down like in Vietnam." Most of those who supported military intervention were also skittish about how long it would take.

Evidently isolationist trends are not simply the thinking of a marginal group but rather a tendency in a large portion of the population, which even includes many who support military intervention. But in the battle of principles going on between and within Americans, there does seem to be some potential for consensus.

The idea that US policy should be guided by a vision that has moral principles and a concept of collective security appears to have an upper hand over the idea that the rest of the world should simply be left to its own inhumane devices. Such activist principles, though, can only be shaped into a viable policy after being forged, at every turn, by healthy doubts about whether the game is really worth the candle - especially when American lives are put at risk.

And, most importantly, the American public is quite definite that no matter how enamored we may be with our vision of a desirable world order, the US must not charge out ahead of the rest, but must move with the world as it evolves.