April 21, 1999

Continued Public Support for Kosovo, But Worries Grow

Introduction and Summary

Americans remain supportive of military action in Yugoslavia, but unease about the situation is growing. A solid majority of the public continues to approve of NATO air strikes against Serbia. Humanitarian concern for the plight of the Kosovars is broad, and only a minority of Americans say that U.S. military involvement in the Balkans is taking too much attention away from domestic concerns. However, the public is increasingly worried about the financial costs and doubts the long run effectiveness of NATO efforts in Yugoslavia. In addition, increased criticism of President Clinton’s handling of foreign policy is contributing to a decline in his job approval ratings.

Support for U.S. participation in NATO air attacks in the Balkans stands at 62%, a level almost identical to that found in a Pew Research Center survey conducted during the first week of the conflict. However, the new poll finds more people very worried that U.S. troops might suffer casualties (66% compared to 55% in March) and an even greater increase in concern about the financial costs of sending troops (38% compared to 21%). Nearly two-thirds (63%) are also very worried that American forces could be involved in Kosovo for a long time.

Echoing these concerns, 53% of Americans say that the air strikes are making the Serbs less likely to agree to a peace plan, and 52% say the attacks will not secure Serbian support for a peace agreement even over the long run. Two-thirds of the public believes ground troops will be needed, but nearly three-quarters say it is very important that Clinton get congressional approval for such action.

The situation in Yugoslavia is taking a toll on opinion of Bill Clinton. Approval of his handling of foreign policy slipped to 51% from 56% in mid-March, and his job approval rating fell to 56% from 62% over that period. This is Clinton’s lowest approval rating since June 1997, and all of the recent decline has occurred among those who disagree with his stewardship of foreign affairs. These are the principal findings of a new nationwide Pew Research Center survey conducted April 15-18, 1999.

Public Divides Over Troops, Wants Congressional Approval

Although majorities support the air war against the Serbs, the issue of ground troops divides Americans — so much so that opinion shifts with small changes in question phrasing. The public divides evenly (47% in favor and 48% opposed) when asked about sending U.S. ground troops to Kosovo, if the air strikes do not stop Serbian attacks there. But when the same question is reinforced with the phrase “to try to end the conflict in Kosovo,” a narrow 51%-42% consensus emerges in favor of ground troops.

Support for both air strikes and ground troops is generally higher among men than women. Two-thirds (67%) of men support the air campaign, for instance, compared to 57% of women. The air strikes continue to draw majority support across party lines — 66% of Democrats, 64% of Independents, and 57% of Republicans say they support the bombings.

Despite the divide over sending ground troops to Kosovo, 65% of Americans think ground forces will be required because the air strikes alone will not force the Serbians to agree to a peace plan. And if U.S. ground troops are sent to Kosovo, 72% of Americans say it is very important that Clinton get approval from Congress first. Even among rank-and-file Democrats, 69% say Clinton should get congressional approval before sending in ground troops. An equally-large majority of all Americans (72%) say it is very important that Clinton get congressional approval to continue bombing, if the air strikes continue for at least several more weeks.

Indeed, concerns about both the risk of casualties and the financial costs of sending ground troops to Kosovo have increased substantially since the first week of the bombing. Two-thirds of Americans (66%) now say they are very worried that U.S. troops might suffer casualties in Kosovo, up from 55% in March. The increase in concern about both issues is sharper among Republicans and Independents than among Democrats. Today, 72% of Republicans say they are very worried about troop casualties, up from 57% in March.

Concerns About Killings in Kosovo

Despite concern about the use of U.S. ground troops, Americans acknowledge the importance of trying to end the fighting in Yugoslavia. Nearly seven-in-ten (69%) say preventing the killing of Kosovo citizens is a very important reason for using U.S. troops in the region. Smaller majorities rate as very important ending starvation and a refugee problem (59%) and preventing a larger war in the region (56%). These numbers are essentially unchanged from the first week of the air strikes.

Some 46% of Americans say they are very worried about the conditions in which Albanian refugees are living. Nearly as many people express concern about the Serbian attacks on ethnic Albanians (44%) and the Serbian civilians who are being hurt or killed in air strikes (40%). Less than one-third (28%) are very worried about the impact of the Albanian refugees on other countries in the region. Women tend to express more concern than men about the refugees and victims. For example, 50% of women say they are very worried about the conditions in which the refugees are living, compared to 41% of men.

Will the Bombing Work?

Americans have begun to question the effectiveness of the air strikes. More than half (53%) say the bombings have made the Serbs less likely to agree to a peace plan, while 34% say the bombing has made the Serbs more likely to agree. Even looking ahead, 52% of Americans doubt the strikes will make the Serbs agree to a peace plan in the end.

With Clinton’s overall job approval rating slipping to 56%, the president gets mixed grades for the way he has explained why U.S. and NATO forces are attacking the Serbs. Some 50% say Clinton has explained the situation well enough so they understand the reasons for the attacks, while 43% say he has not.

Similarly, 51% of Americans approve of Clinton’s handling of the nation’s foreign policy, while 39% do not. Notably, this is linked to the decline in Clinton’s overall job approval. Among those who approve of his foreign policy, there has been no change in job approval. However, among those who disapprove of Clinton’s foreign policy, there has been a 5 percentage point drop in Clinton job approval since March.

Increased Concern over Kosovo

As NATO enters its fifth week of bombing, the number of people who are concerned about the situation in Kosovo has increased sharply: 57% say that ethnic conflict in the province is a very serious problem for the U.S., up from 38% late last month. About the same number say Saddam Hussein’s presence in Iraq is a very serious problem, although worries over the testing of nuclear weapons by India and Pakistan and China’s alleged theft of U.S. nuclear technology top the list of what makes Americans anxious — 65% of the public say each is a very serious problem confronting the U.S.

A solid 59% majority of Americans say that it is important for the United States to pay a lot of attention to the situation in Kosovo. Only 35% feel that U.S. efforts to end the fighting are taking too much attention away from domestic issues.

No Kosovo Overload

American interest in NATO air strikes remains high: 41% of the public says they are following the story very closely, a number little changed from the 43% who followed it late last month. Americans express even greater interest in news about the three U.S. soldiers captured near Kosovo, with 47% saying they are following these stories very closely. Men express equal interest in both stories (50% and 52%, respectively), whereas women are more interested in news about the captive soldiers (42%) than about the air strikes (32%).

By and large, the public is satisfied with the amount of coverage the news media are giving the conflict in Kosovo: 67% say the military attacks are receiving the right amount of attention, just 21% say that it is getting too much and an even smaller minority (8%) saying it is getting too little.

News about the three captured U.S. soldiers garnered the most public interest: 35% say pictures and stories about the three soldiers caught their attention most. Pictures and stories about the refugees leaving Kosovo and of the victims of violence in the region were the most compelling to slightly fewer Americans (30% and 26%, respectively). And only 8% say that their attention was caught most by pictures and stories about the air attacks and damage in Serbia.

Few in the public have heard or read anything that candidates for the 2000 presidential race have said about the situation in Kosovo. Only one-in-ten people say they have read or heard about the views of Al Gore, Dan Quayle, George W. Bush, Elizabeth Dole, or Patrick Buchanan on Kosovo. The number is higher for John McCain: 17% are aware of his statements on the topic.

Among those who are aware of candidate statements on Kosovo, many more agree than disagree with them. Two exceptions involve statements by Dan Quayle and Patrick Buchanan: Support for their statements is divided, with as many Americans disagreeing as agreeing with their views.

Americans’ knowledge of the region has increased over the past month. Today, 66% are able to correctly identify Kosovo as the province in Yugoslavia where there is conflict between Serbians and ethnic Albanians, compared to only 42% who could do so at the outset of the bombing.

Other News

In domestic news, reports about the sentencing of Dr. Jack Kevorkian to 10 to 25 years in prison garnered the very close attention of 22% of the public. Many more senior citizens followed the story very closely than did those under 65 (41% vs 18%).

Similarly, 20% of the public says that they paid very close attention to the news of an Arkansas judge holding President Clinton in contempt of court for his testimony in the Paula Jones lawsuit. Interest was higher among Republicans than among Democrats or Independents(29% vs. 16% and 19%, respectively).