THE congressional debate about United States participation in United Nations peacekeeping raises fundamental questions: Should the US military be involved in UN humanitarian missions or in efforts to stabilize far-flung regions of the world? Or should it stay home and keep its powder dry for big conflicts that could more directly affect the interests, or even the survival, of the US?
The policymaking community has not come to a consensus. So where does the public weigh in?
A recent nationwide poll of 1,204 Americans by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes indicated that approximately two-thirds of the public think UN peacekeeping is a good idea and that the US should contribute troops to it. If the US votes in favor of a peacekeeping operation, 88 percent think the US should be willing to contribute troops to it. If an operation addresses a situation where civilians are being killed, 66 percent think the US should contribute troops "whether or not it serves the national interest."
When the president recently expressed a willingness to send US troops to help reconfigure UN peacekeepers in Bosnia, a firestorm of protest resulted in Congress. Three different polls (for Newsweek, Time, and USA Today) found, however, that two out of three Americans were supportive. Newsweek also found that 61 percent supported sending US ground troops to Bosnia "to join United Nations forces in all efforts to maintain peace and protect relief operations."
Some wrong assumptions
It seems that in the public's mind the train has already left the station: The US is perceived to be already contributing a major portion of the troops in UN peacekeeping operations. In our poll, respondents were asked to estimate what percentage of the troops committed to UN peacekeeping are American. The median estimate was 40 percent overall and 30 percent in the former Yugoslavia.
So how do Americans feel about this presumed level of commitment? Sixty percent feel that the US is contributing more than its fair share. The median response was to cut US participation back to 20 percent. That would be five times the current US level overall and eight times the current US level in the former Yugoslavia. Asked how they would feel about the US contributing 4 percent (the actual amount) of the troops needed for UN peacekeeping, only 9 percent said this was too much. Most Americans want to do their share - a share less than they think is now being done, but more than is in fact being done.
The public's misperception that the US is contributing a large portion of the troops to UN peacekeeping operations helps explain the ambivalence about putting US troops under a foreign UN commander in combat situations. Recent polls show a modest majority (56 percent in our poll) would find a foreign commander acceptable. When asked how they would feel if other countries were contributing more troops than the US, the number accepting a foreign commander jumped to 73 percent.
But what about money? Are Americans willing to see a substantial amount of the defense budget go to supporting US participation in peacekeeping if that eats into more traditional defense functions? Here again, the public assumes this is already occurring. The median American response is that 22 percent of the defense budget goes to US participation in UN peacekeeping. People in this middle ground of opinion would like to cut that back to about 15 percent, a level that's still more than 15 times the actual level.
But what about the concern that participation in UN peacekeeping cuts into the readiness of US troops for more conventional conflicts? Only 33 percent in the poll sample worried that when US troops participate in UN operations it is "taking them away from training for more important kinds of missions." Sixty-one percent agreed that participating in peacekeeping gives American soldiers "valuable experience that will probably be useful in the future."
This does not mean, though, that Americans are entirely enthusiastic about UN peacekeeping. The recent events in Bosnia, with UN peacekeepers being taken hostage, is symptomatic of what Americans do not like about the way that UN peacekeeping is being practiced.
Dangers of peacekeeping
Even before these events, 75 percent agreed with the statement "UN peacekeeping operations are often ineffective and even dangerous because they send troops into civil wars without the means to defend themselves or the ability to deter attacks by being able to retaliate effectively. UN troops end up being sitting ducks."
These frustrations, however, do not lead most Americans to want to back away from UN peacekeeping. They feel that supporting UN peacekeeping is the only way that the US can avoid the role of world policeman. They would like, however, to see UN peacekeeping carried out in a more assertive fashion and they understand that for this to occur it is necessary for the US to play a dynamic role.