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CBS Poll: Support Grows For Strikes

As expectations for long-term U.S. involvement in Kosovo grow, there is an increased public commitment to U.S. participation, with more Americans saying peace in Yugoslavia is worth the cost, according to the latest CBS News/New York Times poll.

The American public now expects that the U.S. will send ground troops to Kosovo, and that the conflict in Yugoslavia will be lengthy. But while support for the air strikes and even for ground troops has grown in the last two weeks—as well as public sympathy for the ethnic Albanian refugees—Americans now have very mixed feelings about President Clinton's skills at managing international crisis.

American support for U.S. and NATO participation in Yugoslavia has increased in the last week. Now 58 percent of the public favors the U.S. and NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia, and 33 percent oppose them. This is up from 51 percent who favored the air strikes just last week.

Support for sending United States ground troops to the conflict in Yugoslavia has also grown, as has the expectation that U.S. ground troop commitment will eventually occur. In this poll, 76 percent expect the U.S. will send ground troops, up from 65 percent last week. Despite these expectations, the public is divided on whether or not that would be the right thing to do. Forty-six percent favor sending ground troops—up 13 points in the last two weeks—while 48 percent say the U.S. should not send ground troops.

U.S. involvement in the conflict is viewed favorably by the public. Fifty-five percent say the U.S. did the right thing getting involved in Kosovo, while 37 percent think the U.S. should have stayed out of the conflict. Public attention to the conflict has risen in recent days, as the NATO bombing has intensified and the refugee crisis has worsened. Now, 43 percent say they are very closely following news of the air strikes, up from 34 percent less than a week ago. This group is much more supportive of U.S. involvement in Kosovo. Sixty-eight percent favor the air strikes and 55 percent favor sending in ground troops.

Overall approval of the President's handling of the situation in Kosovo remains stable—52 percent approve of the way he is handling the situation in Yugoslavia, and 36 percent disapprove. That level of approval has changed little in the last two weeks.

But there has been erosion in the perception of President Clinton's skill at handling a foreign crisis. When the bombing began, 57 percent said they had confidence in the president's ability to deal wisely with an international crisis. In this poll, that figure has dropped to 47 percent, with 48 percent saying they are uneasy about his approach.

As has been true in the past for the Clinton administration, a majority of the public believes that Mr. Clinton does not have a clear plan for U.S. invovement in Kosovo and that he is just reacting to events as they occur. Only 28 percent think the president has a clear plan for his administration's policy in Kosovo, and 58 percent think he does not. By 51 percent to 41 percent, however, Americans say that Mr. Clinton has explained the situation well enough so that they understand why the U.S. and NATO have launched air strikes.

The president's overall approval rating is 58 percent, the first time since the start of the Lewinsky scandal fifteen months ago that his approval rating has slid below 60 percent in the CBS News/New York Times polls. Fifty-five percent approve of the president's handling of foreign policy, and 75 percent approve of his handling of the economy.

Most Americans accept several justifications for the commitment of U.S. ground troops in Kosovo. On the strategic side, 70 percent say that keeping the conflict from spreading throughout Europe is a good enough reason to send U.S. troops. And to many that is a real possibility. Six in ten Americans think it is likely that the conflict will spread to other European countries.

From a humanitarian viewpoint, 65 percent feel that stopping the Serbs from destroying ethnic Albanian communities and allowing the refugees to return to their homeland is a good enough reason to send U.S. ground troops to Kosovo. Fewer say sending ground troops to remove Yugoslav President Slobodon Milosevic would justify the use of U.S. ground troops, though 56 percent say that would be a good enough reason.

One reason the public increasingly expects that U.S. ground troops will be sent to Kosovo is that by almost two to one, the public does not think air strikes alone will force Yugoslav President Slobodon Milosevic to stop attacking Kosovo. In this poll, 59 percent of Americans say that they do not think that the air strikes will stop Milosevic, and only 32 percent think the air strikes will be effective. Last week, those with an opinion were evenly divided when asked a similar question—40 percent thought the air strikes would end the conflict, and 43 percent did not think so.

The heart-wrenching pictures of the Kosovar refugees have generated sympathy from the American public, and a growing number of Americans feel the United States has a responsibility to help the refugee Kosovar Albanians. In this poll, 80 percent think the U.S. has a responsibility to provide humanitarian assistance to the refugees, up from 66 percent last week.

Many more Americans acknowledge this humanitarian responsibility than think the U.S. has a responsibility to do something in general about the fighting between Serbians and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. That number has not changed much throughout the conflict.

Americans overwhelmingly blame the refugee crisis on the Serbs, not on the U.S. and NATO air strikes. Only 13 percensay the air strikes are to blame for the current ethnic Albanian refugees, while 80 percent say the Serbs would have forced the ethnic Albanians out of Kosovo even without the air strikes. Two-thirds of the public say it is appropriate to label the Serb actions against the ethnic Albanians as genocide.

In fact, nearly half think the U.S. should have acted sooner to aid the refugees, and most support the airlift of 20,000 refugees. Twenty-two percent think the U.S. should do even more.

The prospect of American casualties may be the point at which the altruistic instinct ends however. Forty-one percent think that protecting the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo is worth the loss of American lives, but 47 percent disagree.

Few Americans expect that the U.S. military can win a war against a country like Yugoslavia without sustaining a sizable number of dead and wounded, and 85 percent now expect there will be U.S. casualties in the fighting over Kosovo. While less than half think peace in Yugoslavia is worth the price of American lives, that number has increased in the last two weeks as support for U.S. action there has risen. Now 44 percent say peace in Yugoslavia is worth the loss of American lives, as many as say it is not worth American casualties.

Few now expect the conflict to end quickly. Eight in ten think it will last at least several months, and 32 percent say it will last at least a year. But most of the U.S. public think that right now the conflict is going at least somewhat well for NATO.

Given the choice as to what U.S. involvement in Kosovo should be, 44 percent of Americans would continue the air strikes now, but not yet send in ground troops. Thirty percent would withdraw from the conflict altogether. Yet 21 percent would so far as to send in ground troops now. Most of those who support sending in ground troops now would do so even if that meant heavy U.S. casualties.

The public is divided as to whether in circumstances like this, it is more important to use all force necessary to win or more important to limit casualties. Forty-seven percent of Americans think that if the U.S. and NATO agree to fight a war, they should use whatever military force is necessary to win. A nearly equal segment of the public, however, believes that military force should be limited in order to keep casualties down. And most of those who favor using all force necessary to win say they would still feel that way, even if there were many U.S. casualties. Most of those who want to limit military action, however, would change their minds if it meant the U.S. could lose the war.

The divisions between hawks and doves fall along expected gender lines, with men more prepared to win at any cost. Those gender differences show up in nearly all questions involving the use of force.

American interests are perceived to be less at stake in Kosovo than they were during the Gulf War, when about two thirds of Americans felt that what happened in Iraq was very important to the U.S. Just under four in ten Americans think that what happens in Kosovo is very important to the interests of the United States.

The Kosovo conflict is viewed as more critical to U.S. interests than Bosnia was in 1995. Then, only 26 percent said what happened in Bosnia was very important to U.S. interests. Currently, Kosovo is viewed as being less important to U.S. interests than China, but more important than South Africa.

This poll was conducted among a nationwide random sample of 811 adults interviewed by telephone April 5-6, 1999. The error due to sampling could be plus or minus four percentage points for results based on the entire sample. The error on half samples is plus or minus five percentage points.
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