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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

Public Seen as More Hawkish Than Leaders

Polls: Opinion swing in Britain, France and U.S. may give NATO more flexibility on the use of ground troops.

April 08, 1999|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — In a sharp reversal of the usual pattern, public opinion in most of the key NATO nations has grown more hawkish than the countries' political leadership on the question of sending ground troops to Kosovo.

Ordinarily, political leaders have to tug skeptical voters toward military engagement. But while President Clinton and other NATO leaders continue to rule out the use of ground troops in the separatist Serbian province, recent polls consistently show that majorities in Britain, France and the United States would support such a deployment.

"Public opinion is now moving well ahead of the political leadership," said Europe scholar Tony Judt of New York University.

U.S. and European leaders insist that the decision on whether to commit combat troops will be made solely on military, rather than political, grounds. Yet White House officials acknowledge that the turn in public opinion may give Clinton and his allies more flexibility to consider such an escalation in the campaign against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

For Clinton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and other NATO leaders, the unanswered question is whether their voters' new tolerance for ground troops would survive an extended conflict that produces more than minimal allied casualties. The early evidence suggests that, on both sides of the Atlantic, the key decision-makers remain unconvinced that the public commitment really runs that deep.

As one columnist in the Times of London wrote last week: "Mr. Blair seems to regard the headline support for committing ground troops as he did the superficial support in previous campaigns for tax rises. Once public attitudes are properly explored, the idealism evaporates."

Similarly, Clinton advisors maintain that the poll findings reflect more a general desire to respond forcefully to Milosevic than a specific demand for a ground war. "It would be a misreading . . . to say that there is pressure developing that we have to send troops," one Clinton advisor argued.

But public opinion has swung so sharply toward confronting Milosevic that the NATO leaders might eventually face a political risk if they appear to be responding too timidly to the Serbian offensive in Kosovo. In the United States, a small chorus of Republicans led by Sen. John McCain of Arizona has been questioning the usefulness of the air campaign and urging Clinton to consider ground troops.

Growing Consensus on Ground Troops

Polls indicate a growing consensus for the introduction of ground troops and, in the United States at least, a growing belief that ground troops will be required.

In Britain, a poll released this week by the Sunday Times of London found that 66% of respondents said they would support the use of British troops as part of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization ground campaign.

In France, a poll released the same day by the newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche found that 58% backed the introduction of French ground troops in Kosovo.

One European diplomatic source said those numbers were even more striking because French military forces have already suffered 70 casualties in the peacekeeping operation in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a former Yugoslav republic--giving the French a more pointed sense than most NATO nations of the potential price in Kosovo. "That is a signal that the support in France means something," the official said.

In the United States, three polls released since last weekend have found support ranging from 53% to 55% for the introduction of ground troops into Kosovo. Two of those surveys asked Americans whether they believe that ground troops will ultimately be necessary; in each case, at least two-thirds said yes.

Only in Germany have polls not yet found a majority of support for the use of ground troops. But the most recent national survey was taken two weeks ago--before the increase in public support in the other Western democracies--and some analysts believe that, if Germany sent ground troops as part of a NATO force, a majority of Germans would support it as well.

"There are deep-seated doubts about the involvement of German ground forces in such an action, but if NATO decides to send ground forces, I think this will change," said Manfred Guellner, director of the Forsa Institute in Berlin, which conducts polls in Germany. "Quite frankly, I'm very surprised by all this."

The public's dramatic movement toward acceptance of the use of ground troops is surprising opinion analysts in all the NATO countries. In the United States, it reverses the usual scenario of a president trying to coax a dubious public into battle.

"For Korea or Vietnam, there was pretty much unanimity among the political establishment [in favor of ground troops], and people sort of grudgingly went along more than anything else," said John Mueller, a political scientist at the University of Rochester in New York who has written extensively about public opinion in wartime.

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