Americans tiring of halfway war

Views from Dayton, Ohio, reflect growing ambivalence toward NATO

In downtown Dayton, near where Abraham Lincoln argued passionately against slavery seven score years ago, Mike Carnal pauses in an intensifying drizzle.

He's asked about Kosovo.

"Either we have a commitment to the cause or we don't," he says. "If we're committed to sending our children to fight for the cause, then it's a commitment." That means being willing to use all military means. Absent that, "we need to come home."

Mr. Carnal's frustration with NATO's halfway war in Yugoslavia echoes in varying degrees across the United States. Many Americans are wary of sending in ground troops, but they're also increasingly dissatisfied with a war whose strategic importance has always been hazy.

The public's waning support for the two-month-old campaign resonates with special urgency here in Dayton, which gave its name to peace accords for nearby Bosnia and, as a consequence, boasts a citizenry that is particularly well-informed about the Balkans. From local diners to the op-ed pages of the Dayton newspaper, public sentiment reflects a deep ambivalence toward America's role in the conflict - particularly over the issue of committing US ground troops.

That uneasiness may intensify, here and elsewhere, now that the NATO alliance has decided to build a peacekeeping force of as many as 50,000 soldiers in the region.

World War II veteran Ova Rudd and his wife, Elizabeth, mirror the view of a majority of Americans.

Sitting at the food court of a Dayton mall, Mr. Rudd says he reluctantly supports the air campaign but not a ground war. "We could lose a lot of our troops," he says.

Mrs. Rudd, for her part, refuses to watch the nightly images of bombing and refugees on TV. World War II "was a war we had to fight," she says. "But these other wars, we should stay out of 'em."

Nationwide polls (taken before NATO voted to amass troops in preparation for a post-conflict peacekeeping role) show popular support for the air campaign, while slipping over the past month, remains in the range of 52 to 59 percent.

But in a new CNN poll that asked citizens which NATO options they support, only 39 percent backed sending ground troops. By contrast, 82 percent endorsed "pause and talk," and 25 percent said NATO should pull out altogether.

Conflicted in Dayton

Such attitudes bode ill for the Clinton administration's current policy.

Indeed, if Dayton is any indication, much of America remains confused and uncommitted about how to respond to the Kosovo conflict. Many people, apparently, feel caught between a desire to help people who are being evicted from their homeland, and a concern about the costs of the war and US competence in leading it. Some are are tuning out altogether.

When the Dayton peace accords were negotiated here in November 1995, "there were people lined up across the street - protesters and supporters; churches had prayers for peace," says Hap Cawood, editorial page editor for the Dayton Daily News. With Kosovo, by contrast, "it's just not a very dominant issue in our letters column. People are mostly talking about other things."

The same feeling permeates the streets of Dayton. "I've become less interested," says Angel Marzette, shopping for hot sauce in a downtown store.

"I think people don't have a really clear idea about what's going on," says Edward Bronston, a local law student. "It's hard to pick a side."

Supporters remain.

"It probably started off evenly split when it first started; I was probably getting 60 phone calls a day," says US Rep. Tony Hall, a Democrat representing Dayton and the surrounding county. Since then, calls about Kosovo have fallen to six to 12 a day. And "the people are starting to question it. It's confusing to them, they're uneasy."

Mr. Hall, who returned from a fact-finding trip to Albania and Macedonia earlier this month, continues to support the air campaign and wishes President Clinton had not originally dismissed the need for ground troops.

"It might have been somewhat clumsy in the way we got in, but we're definitely doing the right thing in trying to help the refugees," he says. "I felt better about my votes since coming back.... Every family I spoke to [there] had their house burned down and were robbed. And the pilots I spoke to ... who fly over Kosovo at night said it's like a Christmas tree lit up because there are tens of thousands of houses on fire."

Troubled on all sides

But a greater number of residents voice ambivalence. "I am troubled by the problem and I am troubled by the answers," says Mike Herr, a Dayton attorney.

And the more mistakes NATO makes in its air campaign, the more the public questions its overall strategy. "If we don't watch out and with us bombing the wrong things ... it could really escalate," warns Molly Haas, a local paralegal.

Dayton's ambivalence toward Kosovo contrasts sharply with its active engagement in Bosnia. Every year, city groups host a conference on an aspect of the peace accords. This time, it hopes to bring over the Sarajevo Philharmonic to perform in Dayton. Next month, Mayor Michael Turner will travel to Sarajevo with business and civic representatives to sign a sister-city agreement and help rebuild that war-torn corner of the Balkans.

"People in this town have become exceptionally well-informed about this process," says Bruce Hitchner of the Center for International Programs at the University of Dayton. "This sister-city relationship is going to be a model for what two cities can do to bring reconciliation."

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