Clinton's standing in wartime

Public's ho-hum response to Kosovo conflict fails to give the president

So far, President Clinton has not enjoyed an uptick in his personal-approval ratings - a side effect presidents typically relish as Americans "rally around the flag" during military action.

For an administration keenly sensitive to public opinion, much is at stake as the conflict in Kosovo hits the one-week mark. The president's standing in the polls could affect his relationship with a reluctant Congress, as well as the US role in any prolonged action.

But as heated passion swirls around the war in the Balkans, reaction here at home is relatively ho-hum.

US commitment of troops and materiel, as well as the F-117 stealth fighter crash last weekend, is grabbing some attention, but so far, the conflict has neither caught fire with the public nor boosted Mr. Clinton's standing.

Seven days ago, Americans had paid less attention to Kosovo, some say, than to recent showdowns with Iraq, or even to last summer's missile strikes in Afghanistan to retaliate against suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden.

As a result, the White House is carefully gauging public opinion, while putting the best face on the so-far-bland American reaction.

"The numbers I've seen have shown solid support for the actions that the men and women in service are taking," says White House spokesman Joe Lockhart. "The support will grow as we continue to make the case for what our interests are."

But it's unclear how Americans will react as the riskier Phase II of Operation Allied Force continues, putting US pilots in greater danger. An ABC news poll taken on the second day of NATO strikes revealed 59 percent did not think creating peace in the region was worth American lives.

"Costs here are measured in lives, not dollars," says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. "As long as we aren't taking casualties, there won't be a huge, negative cry."

A Gallup poll taken last week showed 46 percent of respondents supported airstrikes, while 43 percent opposed them. At the same time, 58 percent said America has a moral obligation to bring peace to the region. Some 60 percent say they approve of Clinton's foreign policy.

Polling by half a dozen firms will be released this week, measuring support for both Clinton and his handling of the crisis.

While the president's approval ratings have remained constant, they are still high. Understanding the public's reaction to the conflict, and the failure of Clinton's approval ratings to spike either up or down, is more complicated than usual, say presidential watchers.

Public support is absent, some say, because of the frequency with which the White House has used tactical airstrikes - four times within the past year alone. "This baby-boomer president has engaged in more bombing than any president since Nixon," says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley.

Frequency, without concrete results, diminishes the public's expectations. "There is a growing skepticism that these antiseptic wars will be effective in achieving political goals. It hasn't worked in Iraq very well," Mr. Cain says. "Voters are getting more savvy about these things, and that could put him [Clinton] in more trouble."

Moreover, the US public understands little about the conflict's underpinnings or its cast of characters.

"It's not surprising that the American people hear the strange-sounding names and words and ask, 'What's our interest over there?'" says Lee Hamilton, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington and a former chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee. "Until [recently], the president had not addressed the situation consistently."

Moreover, one of Clinton's core constituencies, women, is not as prone to rallying over this type of action. "Women tend to be much more risk-averse than men, and less supportive of military encounters," says Stephen Wayne, a professor of government at Georgetown University here.

Finally, some pollsters say Clinton's numbers won't jump, because they were already high.

At the beginning of his administration, he battled low approval ratings of his foreign policy. Pundits decried his seat-of-his-pants approach to complex international relationships. While he has not completely shaken that evaluation, Clinton's wider public-approval ratings have consistently risen from 37 percent since the fall of 1995, when he sent US troops to Bosnia.

Strong public support will be essential for Clinton for any prolonged engagement as he struggles to work with a skeptical Congress. Generating public support for a long-term mission, say opinion watchers, will take a sustained media campaign from the White House.

"People don't have enough video of the massacres in Kosovo for it to matter to them," says John Zogby, president of a polling firm in Utica, N.Y. "In the age of video, [the conflict] needs to be seen and humanized over and over and over, as far as winning public opinion is concerned."

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