Poll: Hawkish Ambivalence

Americans support U.S. and NATO air strikes against Serbian forces, but many expect there will be American casualties in the action and don't think peace in Kosovo is worth that price.

In interviews conducted Wednesday night, both before and after President Clinton's address to the nation, half the public said they favored U.S. and NATO air strikes against Serbia. But 30 percent opposed them.

While there is majority support for this current U.S. military engagement, this level of support is much lower than was the case during last December's bombing in Iraq. Then, by 79 percent to 16 percent, the public favored the Air Force bombings after Iraq's failure to comply with United Nations weapons inspections.

There is a significant worry that the U.S. will sustain casualties in the NATO air strikes. A total of 68 percent think there will be loss of American life in the conflict. At this early stage, the majority is not willing to pay that price. A total of 52 percent say peace in Yugoslavia is not worth the loss of American life and the other costs involved, and 34 percent say peace there is worth that cost.

Even so, many Americans don't think the U.S. should simply ignore what is taking place in Kosovo. By 56 percent to 32 percent, the public believes the U.S. has a responsibility to do something about the fighting between the Serbs and ethnic Albanians. That is a significant increase since the Bosnian conflict several years ago, when, on average, less than a third thought the U.S. had a responsibility to do something about the ethnic fighting in Bosnia.

But taking responsibility does not mean people automatically think U.S. interests are at stake in the region. As of Wednesday night, only 35 percent described what happens in Serbia and Kosovo as very important to the interests of the United States. Nearly twice as many believed that what happens in Iraq is very important to U.S. interests.

By 50 percent to 33 percent, Americans think President Clinton has explained the situation well enough so that they understand why the U.S. and NATO have launched air strikes against Serbia. But most of those interviewed Wednesday night had not heard the president's address to the nation. Among those who did see the speech, more than two-thirds thought he had explained the situation well enough, and speech watchers were satisfied with his explanation.

All the evaluations of the president's handling of the situation are positive, though many are less so than they were last fall at the start of the bombing of Iraq. In this poll, just about half say the Clinton administration tried hard enough to reach a diplomatic solution in Kosovo. (That figurrises to 61 percent among those who saw the president's speech).

By 53 percent to 25 percent, Americans approve of the way President Clinton is handling the situation in Yugoslavia. While lower than the approval rating Mr. Clinton has received for his handling of Iraq, it's higher than the ratings he got for his handling of Haiti or for the Bosnian crisis.

In fact, the president gets his highest scores ever when the public is asked whether they have confidence in Mr. Clinton's ability to handle an international crisis. A total of 57 percent say they have such confidence, and 37 percent do not. And 60 percent approve of the way the president is handling foreign policy in general. A staggering 76 percent approve of his handling of the economy.

President Clinton's overall job approval rating is 65 percent.

More than half the public is hopeful that the air strikes might meet one of the objectives laid down by President Clinton: Forcing Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to stop attacking Kosovo. A total 53 percent think the air strikes can force the Yugoslav president to do this, and 27 percent think they cannot.

The public is much more closely divided on the impact of the NATO action on U.S.-Russian relations. Russian President Boris Yeltsin has indicated his strong opposition to the air strikes, and 42 percent of the public think those air strikes will damage U.S. relations with Russia. A total of 49 percent think they will not.

Many Americans have not paid close attention to what has taken place in Kosovo. Lack of information may be one reason why, when people were asked whether they favor or oppose the air strikes, a full 20 percent did not have an opinion. That is the highest number not offering an opinion on a U.S. military action taken while President Clinton has been in office. Previous Clinton administration conflicts included Iraq, Afghanistan and the Sudan, Bosnia, Haiti, and Somalia.

In fact, almost half don't know who to blame more for the fighting - the Serbians or the ethnic Albanians. A total of 38 percent blame the Serbs, 6 percent the Albanians, but 48 percent simply say they don't know.

This poll was conducted among a nationwide random sample of 527 adults interviewed by telephone March 24, 1999. The error due to sampling could be plus or minus four percentage points for results based on the entire sample. Sampling error for sub-groups is higher.