March 29, 1999

Support for NATO Air Strikes with Plenty of Buts

Introduction and Summary

Americans expressed approval of air strikes against Serbia during the first five days of the Yugoslav operation, but there are clear indications that public support for involvement there is limited. Only a minority think the situation in Kosovo is a serious problem for the United States, and there is considerable worry about American casualties. Most would disapprove of U.S. ground troops as peacekeepers, let alone as peace-makers.

The Pew Research Center’s national telephone survey of 1,488 adults conducted March 24-28, 1999 found 60% approving and 30% disapproving of the NATO air strikes. An equal number (60%) say NATO has a responsibility to act there, but in a separate form of the question in which NATO is not referenced, only 47% say the U.S. has a responsibility to try to end the fighting.

Going along as part of a NATO effort to stop the killing in Kosovo is the principal predicate of support for American involvement. Preventing a larger war in Europe has less resonance. Fully seven-in-ten (70%) cite preventing the killing of innocent citizens in Kosovo as a very important reason for military action, while roughly half (57%) highly rate heading off a war that might involve other European countries.

Few Americans (38%) see the conflict in Kosovo as a very serious problem for the U.S. In contrast, nearly twice as many (58%) think the continued rule of Saddam Hussein in Iraq is a top problem. The potential build up of nuclear weapons in North Korea and nuclear testing by India and Pakistan also get much bigger ratings as serious problems for the U.S. than does the current situation in the former Yugoslavia.

The survey found a 49%-44% plurality opposed to sending U.S. troops to Serbia as part of a NATO peacekeeping force, if it comes to that. Polls which questioned the public about peace-making found even less support.1 Further, a Newsweek survey late last week found 60% of its respondents thinking the air war will not be enough to get Milosevic to comply and that ground forces will be required.

The Pew Research Center survey showed more than eight-in-ten are concerned about American casualties, with more than half (55%) very worried. Only one-in-five (20%) are very worried about the financial costs of the operation.

Bipartisan support

The U.S. and NATO air strikes generally drew bipartisan support during the first week of the bombing. Nearly 60% of Republicans (58%) and Independents (59%) and fully 68% of Democrats approve of the air strikes. But support for sending groups troops to Kosovo as peacekeepers remains much weaker. Democrats are evenly divided (47% approve, 43% disapprove) and Republicans oppose ground troops by a 52%-42% margin.

Senior citizens express the strongest reservations about U.S. operations in Kosovo, and they worry more about possible casualties. Just 55% of those 65 and older approve of the air strikes, compared to 60% among all Americans. And fewer than one-third (31%) of seniors approve of sending ground troops as peacekeepers, compared to 44% overall. More than two-thirds of seniors (68%) say they are very worried that U.S. troops might suffer casualties.

Americans express very high levels of interest in news about the air strikes, but they are generally uninformed about the conflict. Attention to stories about Kosovo has almost quadrupled since the attacks were launched: now 41% of the public is following the story very closely; just 11% paid very close attention during the peace negotiations. But in a separate question, a 57% majority could not name Kosovo as the province under attack.

  1. A CBS News poll conducted March 28, 1999 found 62% of Americans oppose using troops to “try and end the fighting in Kosovo.”