View of U.S. deaths depends on mission Public would accept losses in Balkans if peace reigns, poll says

November 28, 1995|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The one thing about Bosnia that Americans all agree on: No one wants to see the military body bags arriving at Dover Air Force Base, the complex in Delaware where U. S. war dead arrive.

The other near certainty: There will be American casualties and probably deaths.

As President Clinton put it last night: "No deployment of American troops is risk free, and this one may well involve casualties."

So how ready is the public to face fatalities among the 20,000 U.S. troops in a multi-national peace implementation force of 60,000 that could begin operations next month in the most explosive region of Europe since World War II?

According to Steven Kull, director of the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes, it will all depend on whether ordinary Americans believe that the troops are accomplishing their mission.

"The public is more oriented to success than to the question of casualties," said Mr. Kull. "They are sensitive to casualties and it enters in to their concept of success, but the key thing is whether peace is maintained and ethnic cleansing is stopped."

Mr. Kull has tracked public opinion on Bosnia since May 1993. By raising the prospect of the mission's success in his questions, he has come up with results that conflict with other polls, which find as many as two out of three Americans against the deployment. He finds the public more equally divided over the issue, and overwhelmingly in support if U.S. participation is accepted as essential to peace -- even with significant loss of life.

there are a lot of fatalities, then they will perceive the operation as not succeeding," he said. "If they perceive everything is under control but there are a few incidents, here and there, where some rogue group knocks off some U.S. troops in an isolated incident but the situation is basically moving in the right direction they will accept it."

Pentagon officials have acknowledged that the Bosnia mission will be dangerous. They do not expect any full-scale attacks on the U.S. troops, who will be heavily armed and combat ready, but foresee scattered hit-and-run strikes by rogue paramilitaries.

"The danger to U.S. troops is fairly minimal," said Loren B. Thompson, military analyst with the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, a conservative Virginia think tank.

"The forces on the Serb side we will be facing are quite irregular, quite ill-disciplined and quite unimpressive compared with the firepower we will bring to bear, and I think they know that."

Nevertheless, there seems little doubt that events in Bosnia will test the national nerve.

Public tolerance of overseas casualties has been a major concern for politicians since the Vietnam era.

The issue was aggravated by the deaths of 241 U.S. servicemen, mostly Marines, in a terrorist bombing in Lebanon in October 1983, and by the deaths of 18 Army Rangers in a single firefight in Somalia in 1993. The fatalities led to the swift ending of both missions.

"When we took those casualties [in Somalia] there was a cry on the floor of the United States Congress to bring [the troops] home the next week," recalled Sen. John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican and former Navy secretary during the latter years of the Vietnam War, on NBC's "Meet The Press" on Sunday.

Citing the "lessons from Somalia," Mr. Warner said: "There can be no cut and run if we endure casualties. That's got to be made very, very clear from the outset."

Stephen J. Cimbala, professor of social science at Penn State University, assessed public tolerance of casualties in Bosnia as "somewhere in between Somalia in 1993 and Beirut in 1983."

TH "Clearly, if you have a terrorist attack where 241 U.S. soldiers are

blown up in their barracks, that's it," he said.

A national survey, released yesterday by Mr. Kull's College Park polling organization, reports the public split over sending troops to Bosnia, with 50 percent in favor and 47 percent opposed. But if peace was assured, even at the cost of 50 American lives, 60 percent said they would credit the Clinton administration with doing the right thing.

Noting that these findings conflicted with other polls which found a clear majority of Americans against U.S. intervention in Bosnia, Mr. Kull said most polls did not balance popular sentiment toward Bosnia against the prospect of success there.

Members of Congress threatening to vote against the Bosnia mission, he said, were responding to politically active constituents who were more resistant to U.S. intervention and less tolerant of casualties than the general public.

"You do have a situation where Congress is more reactive than the public," said Mr. Kull.

Andrew J. Bacevich, executive director of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, agreed, saying: "It seems to me we don't know how tolerant the public is [of casualties].

"What we know is the perception among the elites is that the American people have a very low tolerance.

"I think that's what really happened in Somalia. Immediately, inside the [Capital] Beltway there was a hue and cry that said this is unacceptable and led to the panic-stricken decision to disengage.

"From the perspective of the elites, I suspect the limit [in Bosnia] could be even less than 18 deaths [in Somalia]. I can imagine, assuming that this intervention comes off, that as few as eight or 10 American deaths could cause a similar hue and cry."

One potential factor in lowering the tolerance threshold, particularly among politicians: next year's presidential election.

Said Mr. Bacevich: "Presidential politics looms larger and larger with each passing day. Therefore, the Republican majority has an ever-stronger incentive to beat up on the administration, using whatever means are available -- and casualties are a perfect opportunity to do this."

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