THE recent NATO ultimatum to the Bosnian Serbs to withdraw their heavy artillery from Sarajevo or face airstrikes received overwhelming support from the American public.
A poll taken Feb. 9-13 by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland (PIPA) found that 76 percent support the ultimatum, while 80 percent support following through with airstrikes if the Serbs fail to comply. This number is substantially higher than the modest majorities who have supported airstrikes to defend Sarajevo in the past. Support for participation by United States troops in a United Nations peacekeeping force to enforce an agreement, if one is accepted by all sides, also has jumped - from the 40 to 57 percent range of the last few months to 72 percent.
Is this dramatic shift simply the Cable News Network effect, an emotional response to the grisly images of Sarajevans torn apart by an artillery shell? If so, policymakers could worry - and rightly
so - that such support may quickly evaporate once the public sees images of American pilots downed in the course of carrying out the airstrikes.
But any explanation based on the CNN effect does not hold water. Polls taken by CNN/USA Today and ABC on the evening of Feb. 7, shortly after news reports of the killing of 68 Sarajevans, showed that only 48 percent and 57 percent, respectively, favored airstrikes. It was only after the formal ultimatum was made and President Clinton explained it on prime-time television that support jumped to the 76 to 80 percent level.
The response was not merely emotional; Americans appear to be responding positively to a sense of purpose and coherence in dealing with the problems of Bosnia. Apparently Americans were looking for this in advance. In the Feb. 7 CNN/USA Today poll, only 48 percent favored airstrikes; but when asked how they would respond ``if President Clinton and Congress do order airstrikes,'' 65 percent said they would support them.
Nonetheless, policymakers may still worry that the recent experience in Somalia shows that American public support for military action will fizzle in the face of US fatalities. Such support may indeed falter, but the US experience in Somalia does not offer us such an objective lesson.
A PIPA poll carried out in October, shortly after the deaths of the American soldiers in Mogadishu, found that much of the sentiment for withdrawing troops stemmed from a perception, held by the majority of those polled, that most Somalis wanted the US to withdraw. When asked whether we should stay if most Somalis want us to stay, 54 percent of those polled answered yes. Thus, the experience in Somalia only tells us that American public support for airstrikes will likely fall off if the Bosnians start firing at the planes that are trying to protect them.
This does not mean that American fatalities would not produce some public reaction - only that our historical experience does not tell us whether this reaction would override the concerns that prompted military intervention. The aversion to Vietnam was not simply a reaction to American deaths but a collapse of the public perception that the war had clear, worthwhile purpose. In other military actions, when the purpose was meaningful and clear, the public tolerated significant losses. World War II is the classic example, and even in the Gulf war American losses were greater than they have been in Somalia.
The question policymakers now face is whether Bosnia has the potential clarity of purpose of World War II or will inevitably fall into the murkiness of Vietnam. A PIPA poll conducted last May found that 48 percent of respondents worried about ``becoming bogged down like in Vietnam.'' But 67 percent concurred that Serbian ethnic cleansing ``is essentially a small version of Hitler's genocide against the Jews.'' Sixty-eight percent concurred with the argument that, because ``Serbia is making direct attacks on Bosnia as well as sending weapons to the Serbian rebels, members of the UN should defend the Bosnian government.''
This suggests that the public still feels that the key lessons of World War II - that forces engaging in expansionist aggression and genocide must be stopped - apply to Bosnia. Fears of a Vietnam-like quagmire do not appear to be strong, although they persist.
Nevertheless, most polling data over the past year has drawn a picture of Americans as somewhat uncertain about their commitment to Bosnia. Only a bare majority has tended to support some kind of multilateral military action. But this response has come in an environment where Western leaders, instead of presenting a coherent policy, have repeatedly lapsed into finger-pointing and recrimination - hardly a Churchillian performance.
The sudden surge in public support in response to this new cohesion in Western leadership suggests that the American public may indeed be ready to sustain support for a clear, activist Bosnia policy that flows from deeply held collective values and experiences. The question for the leadership now is whether it can stay the course in a way that will continue to tap this wellspring of support. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.