Public support grows for war with Yugoslavia

Images of homeless Albanians and the capture of three US soldiers

Just two weeks ago, most of the callers to Boston's WRKO radio station firmly believed that the US should not be the world's policeman. Kosovo was just too far away to get involved.

But many listeners to this popular talk show now support NATO's bombing raids in Yugoslavia. A growing number also are in favor of sending ground troops to stop Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's effort to "ethnically cleanse" the Kosovo region of its Albanian population.

"The people who believe there's a moral imperative are coming out of the woodwork now," says Tom Irwin, known as "Tai" on the air. "The images are so overwhelming."

The relentless pictures of exhausted and frightened refugees pouring out of Kosovo over the past few weeks have helped solidify American public opinion in favor of the bombing raids against Yugoslavia, according to public-opinion experts. That's been aided by the fact that, while three Americans have been captured so far, none have lost their lives. Several polls show some 60 percent of Americans now support the bombing raids.

ALMOST half of Americans polled now say they favor the introduction of ground troops, if the airstrikes fail to stop Milosevic in Kosovo. That number has increased steadily from two weeks ago, when only 31 percent in a Gallup poll favored ground troops.

"We've asked [the question] three times, and each time the support gets higher," says Frank Newport, the editor in chief of the Gallup poll. "But it's still barely a majority and 10 points below the support for the current airstrikes."

Los Angeles-based composer Raphael Rudd has a typical reaction. He's hesitant about anything that could cause a loss of life, but believes there is a moral imperative that has to be met.

"This guy's evil, and this kind of ethnic cleansing is really disturbing," says Mr. Rudd. "You don't want to hurt anyone, but he should be stopped at all costs."

Some analysts believe an unusual combination of liberal humanitarians and conservative military hawks is now making up the bulk of the consensus in favor of ground troops. But pollsters say the driving force is the humanitarian crisis.

"Clearly, what people are perceiving is that our current strategy of just an air war is not accomplishing, at least at this point, what they want," says Floyd Ciruli of Ciruli Associates, a Denver-based polling firm.

But Mr. Ciruli warns that public opinion is very volatile on the issue. For the past two weeks, the refugee and humanitarian crisis has dominated the media, giving the Clinton administration the "cause" it needs to justify its actions. But if conditions change, for example, if the Serbs laid down their arms, the NATO alliance began to crack, or Russia began supplying the Serbs with defensive weapons, the public's sentiment could easily shift in the other direction, he contends.

George Shaw, who was enjoying a warm spring afternoon in Manhattan's Bryant Park, believes the only way to win is to send ground troops.

"And that will cause things to get worse, then public opinion is going to pull them right back out of there again, when Americans start coming home in body bags," he says.

That happened in Somalia in 1993, after a US soldier was killed and dragged through the streets by an angry mob. But support for the Gulf War in 1991 remained high, despite US casualties.

Then, President Bush worked to rally public opinion over a five-month period while he lobbied the nation's allies, the United Nations, and Congress before the bombing started in January.

"Then there was more reluctance on the part of the public to commit ground troops," says the Gallup poll's Mr. Newport. "But once we actually started the bombing [in Iraq], 80 percent supported it."

The Gulf War had one of the highest levels of support of any US military engagement of the past two decades, according to Newport. In most military missions - from President Reagan's decision to send troops into Beirut and Granada, to President Clinton's recent foray into Haiti - support for ground troops hovered around 50 percent.

"We have found that other than the Gulf War, the level of support for actual troop involvement has been fairly much in that 40 to 50 percent range," Newport says. "So what we're finding now is consistent with that in terms of troops."

In Oklahoma City, Marjorie Revah, a mother of three, says she hasn't had the time to focus as much on Kosovo as she'd like. But she wants to be sure ground troops are really needed before they're committed.

"If it really is ethnic cleansing, then I think we should be there - I wish someone had done it for the Jewish people during the Holocaust," she says.

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