Americans tepid on Kosovo strikes

Failure of US-Yugoslav talks March 23 cleared path for NATO-ledbombing.

As of March 23, the prospect of the US dropping bombs on Kosovo had not yet reverberated among the listeners of the Fred Honsberger talk radio show on Pittsburgh's KDKA. Instead, they wanted to talk about whether to build a new football stadium using tax dollars.

"Kosovo's not a hot topic around here," says Mr. Honsberger.

Americans' lack of interest in the Balkans is but one stumbling point for President Clinton as he faces the prospect of US servicemen losing their lives in a fractious central European country - a distinct possibility given sophisticated Yugoslav air defenses.

Opinion polls show the American public is not yet convinced of the need for air strikes - pointing up its ambiguity toward military conflict in the post-Vietnam era.

The uncertainty has been reflected, too, by the people's elected representatives. On Capitol Hill, the Republican-led Congress had for days engaged in a power struggle with the White House over committing US forces. But by press-time yesterday, momentum in the Senate was swinging toward support for American participation in any NATO-led action.

Many experts agree that for a military operation to succeed, public support is vital - even in cases of limited troop exposure. By far the biggest factor that could erode that support: American loss of life.

"If there is a loss of pilots and plane, and the cost goes up dramatically, there will be a rapid loss of support," says Floyd Ciruli, head of Denver-based Ciruli Associates, a public policy and polling firm.

That's what happened as recently as 1993, when the loss of several dozen American soldiers in the eastern African nation of Somalia eroded public backing. The UN-led peacekeeping effort quickly collapsed, and most forces pulled out by April 1994.

Even as Clinton worked yesterday to persuade Congress to close ranks behind him, signs of discontent from the public at large were not to be found. So far, there have been no public protests.

But there are signs of reticence among the public about getting too deeply involved in the Kosovo conflict. An ABC News/Washington Post poll found last week that 62 percent of respondents were against the US bombing Yugoslavia - even if Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic did not agree to a peace plan. A poll released yesterday by Gallup, however, found 46 percent of respondents in favor of the US being part of a NATO action against the Serbs.

Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, which is conducting a poll this week, believes Americans will support the president as long as there are no body bags. "If we lose one or two pilots, that will test the level of support," he says.

Indeed, some of the public is growing concerned. While waiting for a bus on New York's Fifth Avenue, J. Goldman says that even though he has not thought about Kosovo, he has doubts about getting involved in someone else's problems.

"I would feel real bad if some of our guys got hurt over there," he says.

In Los Angeles, screenwriter Bennett Cohen says he supports Clinton's position but worries about military action. "My fear is we use bombing and don't destroy his [President Milosevic's] power, we strengthen him," he says.

North Branford, Conn., retiree James Quinn says it's important that Americans stand up. "If we do nothing about this, they're going to say, 'See, those Americans backed down.' "

But New Yorker Mary Palladino says she listened to Clinton's press conference last week when he explained why the US should become involved in Kosovo. "I listened to all that baloney and I don't think we should be sticking our nose in other people's business," says the legal secretary.

Ms. Palladino's opinion mirrors the majority of his listeners, says Tom Irwin, host of a talk radio show on WRKO in Boston. "Most people don't believe the US should be the policeman of the world," says Mr. Irwin, who is known on the air as TAI.

To make Americans care, says TAI, the president will have to step up the public relations. "We need a bad guy and a good guy and a concrete reason to get involved and a solution to the problem," he says. "Otherwise, why should we care?"

The sense of urgency yesterday was heightened by the news out of Kosovo. US special envoy Richard Holbrooke's talks with President Milosevic had ended, and Serbian soldiers continued their march across Kosovo - torching villages and sending hundreds of ethnic Albanians fleeing. After meeting with Clinton yesterday, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) of Texas, a critic of US Kosovo policy, said, "It becomes a different issue when action is imminent."

Earlier in the week, some senators were so disturbed by the Clinton policy that they introduced a measure to block funds for US military action if the president did not first obtain congressional approval for action.

This is because Congress, including the Republicans, is split over the issue. For example, Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R) of Arkansas said on CNN Monday, "We simply cannot put American troops every place this kind of tragedy occurs."

In New York on Monday, however, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona told a group of editors at George magazine, "I come down on the side of bombing, but I would probably really want to bomb the daylights out of them because they are a tough people, used to warfare..... Unless we really deal significant pain," Senator McCain continued, "it's likely they will continue doing what they are apparently doing right now."

* Jim Blair in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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