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Muted and Mixed Public Response To Peace in Kosovo

Introduction and Summary

American reaction to the end of the air war in Kosovo is mixed. While public support for intervention rebounded in the closing days of the conflict, there is little indication of public exaltation at its end.

Two-thirds of the public (68%) now says the United States and NATO did the right thing in conducting air strikes against Serbia, and approval for the strikes rose to 62% in the final days of the campaign, up nine percentage points since May. Now that the military conflict has ended, a 56%-37% majority approves of American ground troops taking part in a NATOpeacekeeping mission.

The peace agreement, however, brought no increase in President Clinton’s job approval ratings, and only a thin 46%-40% plurality of Americans think the U.S. and NATO achieved the goals they set out at the start of the air war.

The latest Pew Research Center poll reveals significant concern about the peacekeeping mission. Fewer than one-in-three Americans think the Serbs (30%) and the Kosovo Liberation Army (32%) will comply with the terms of the peace accords, and 40% are very worried that U.S. troops might suffer casualties. However, just 21% of the public expresses this level of concern about the financial costs of the peacekeeping mission.

Clinton’s overall job approval rating remains at 55%, showing no movement back toward its pre-Kosovo level of 60% or higher. However, approval of Clinton’s conduct of foreign policy rose to 52% from a low of 46% in mid-May. At that time, in the aftermath of the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, support for Clinton’s foreign policy leadership and the Balkan intervention had dipped significantly.

The June 9-13, 1999 survey also found a strong partisan reaction to events in the Balkans. A 54% majority of Democrats believe the U.S. and NATO achieved their goals in Kosovo, a view shared by only 41% of Republicans and 43% of Independents. Similarly, there is majority support for U.S. participation in peacekeeping among Democrats (66%) and Independents (55%), but only 49% of Republicans concur. The poll also found less support for peacekeeping among women, young adults and less well-educated Americans.

By roughly two-to-one margins, Americans say that the U.S. and other Western powers have a moral obligation to use military force to prevent genocide around the world. The public supports the use of force in Europe by 60%-29%; in Africa by 58%-31%; in Asia by 58%-33%. A clear 77% majority of the public says that efforts should be made to arrest and try Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic for war crimes.

News Interest Apathy

Extensive media coverage of the peace agreement over the weekend did not raise public interest in news out of the region. Conducted mostly after the cessation of bombing, the poll found just 28% of the public are paying very close attention to news about the peace agreement, slightly less than the 32% who paid very close attention to the air strikes in the final weeks.

Public interest in the conflict in Serbia peaked at 47% in April, when three U.S. soldiers were captured near Kosovo. Interest in the air campaign fluctuated between a high of 43% and a low of 32%. Overall, American attention to Kosovo never rivaled that given the 1991 Gulf War. Two-thirds of the public paid very close attention to that conflict.

Various debates about gun control in Congress and state legislatures drew nearly as much interest as Kosovo last week, with 28% of the public paying very close attention to news about these issues. The stories were of equal interest to men and women, and to Democrats and Republicans.

One-in-five people (21%) are paying very close attention to news about allegations that China stole U.S. nuclear secrets, sustaining the level of interest found this spring when the news first broke. Republicans are much more interested in the story than Democrats, with 30% paying very close attention compared to just 17% of Democrats.

The crash of an American Airlines flight in Arkansas drew similar interest last month, with 19% of the public paying very close attention to the story.

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