Posted on July 24, 1995 in Washington Watch

The American public favors strong action to defend Bosnian Muslims from Serbian aggression, but requires political leadership to better define available policy options. These were some of the findings of a poll released on July 21 by the American Task Force for Bosnia (ATFB).

The poll, conducted by the John Zogby Group of New York, interviewed 900 registered voters across the United States, and had a margin of error of 3.3%.

Almost two-thirds of the respondents (65.1%) indicated that they are closely following events in Bosnia, and by a 7 to 1 margin their sympathies are with the Bosnian Muslims over the Serbs.

In fact, there is deep concern over the fate of the beleaguered Bosnian Muslim community. Almost 60% identified the Serbian practice of “ethnic cleansing” as “similar to the treatment of Jews by the Nazis during World War II” – and more than 78% of those who took that position said that they “believe that the U.S. government has a responsibility to stop another Holocaust” in Bosnia.

In light of these attitudes, it is not surprising that, by a 2 to 1 margin (52%-26%), the voters polled feel that the U.S. should “play a more active role in insuring that UN safe areas are really safe for Bosnian civilians. At the same time 52.3% support the use of force to protect these safe areas, and only 24% oppose that idea.

Other results from the ATFB poll are less clear. While a slight majority do not support U.S. air strikes against the Serbs (33.2% to 35.3%), a majority do support U.S. Congressional efforts to lift the arms embargo in place against the Bosnia government (37% to 24%). In both instances, those who have no opinion or are undecided form the largest bloc of those polled.

What emerges from the ATFB-Zogby Group poll is that U.S. public opinion has been deeply affected by daily media coverage of Serbian atrocities. Americans want something to be done to save the lives of the beleaguered Bosnian Muslims, but are not clear on exactly what should be done; nor do Americans feel capable of micromanaging the U.S. military response to the tragedy.

It appears that the large groups of “undecided” presents an opportunity for the U.S. leadership to present options, to educate the public about those options, and to build support for implementing the best of those options.

It was this methodology which the Bush Administration used in its public handling of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990-91. Even with months of persuasion and discussion, the last poll taken before the air war began showed that the American public was split on the issue of war, with 47% on each side; but the strong leadership of Bush in the early days of the war led to more than 90% public approval for his actions. Yet even during the Bush Administration and throughout that of Bill Clinton, the U.S. response to the crisis in Bosnia has lacked the consistency and commitment needed to consolidate public support for decisive action.

During the 1992 campaign, then-Democratic nominee Bill Clinton attacked the Bush Administration’s inaction on Bosnia. By proposing an end to the arms embargo and a policy of air strikes against Serbian positions, Clinton laid out the predicate for a policy debate on Bosnia. The Bush Administration responded by arguing that Bosnia was not a U.S. strategic concern, but was instead a European issue. The Bush team was unwilling to precipitate a diplomatic clash with European allies by undertaking unilateral action.

Upon assuming the presidency, however, Clinton’s “strike and lift” initiative was put aside after encountering opposition from America’s European allies. Each time that the Clinton Administration has proposed a strong response to Serbian aggression, the initiative has been withdrawn due to a lack of domestic and/or international support.

If anything, this failure to push an option and to provide leadership and build support for a decisive response to the Bosnia crisis has been the main criticism of the Clinton Administration’s approach to Bosnia.

Noting this, former Carter State Department spokesperson Hodding Carter said,

“The problem is inconsistency. This is a situation where the public is up for grabs but it requires you to sustain a steady conversation about foreign policy, even though you may be taking considerable heat. But Clinton gets spooked by events or by polls results, and pulls the plug on his own policy.”

Echoing this view, Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton (former Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee), said:

“The President should have come to us and said what are we committed to do and how we intend to do it. He should do more to prepare Congress and the American people.”

Now that the tables have turned and President Clinton is under attack by Senator Robert Dole (R-KS) who is also the front running Republican presidential contender, the same pattern is emerging again.

In the face of public outrage over repeated Serbian outrages, Dole is proposing much the same policy once proposed by candidate Clinton. With some bi-partisan support in both the Senate and the House, including candidate Clinton’s earliest major supporter – Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), Dole is proposing a unilateral U.S. lifting of the arms embargo that many feel has crippled the Bosnian government’s ability to defend its constituents.

But as Dole was preparing for a Congressional vote on the question last week, the Administration convinced him to temporarily stay his hand. Dole received a telephone call from Clinton, who urged him not to act, since doing so might upset “delicate negotiations” underway among NATO Leaders.

Some observers suggested that Dole’s decision to delay action was prompted by a fear that if he succeeded in lifting the embargo, and if that were followed by a pull-out of UN Peacekeepers and the conflict spread more broadly throughout the Balkans, Dole might be faulted for creating that disaster.

White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta said as much. He noted:

“If we simply get out and arm them, what happens here is that the United States will have almost direct responsibility then to assist the Bosnians or let them simply destroy themselves in this process. That’s unacceptable. It’s unacceptable to put large troops on the field as well. I really ask those that want to vote for that kind of resolution not just to vote for the resolution and say that’s going to be the end of it. They have got to bear the responsibility for the consequences here, and the consequences are that when we do unilaterally lift in this fashion, our allies will, in fact, remove themselves. The UN mission will be removed. And we, the United States, will then bear direct responsibility for what takes place there.”

White House spokesperson Mike McCurry added,

“We’ll also be saying to the United States Senate that this is an awful time to further inflame this conflict by unilaterally lifting the arms embargo. Lifting the arms embargo is purely and simply a way to drive the United nations out of Bosnia, which would be devastating for all the refugees that we’ve seen there in recent days. It would also drive the United States in. We would probably have to have a substantial ground component to live up to the moral responsibility we would take on if we lifted the arms embargo.”

And painting an even more dire scenario, Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton stated:

“If we start supplying the Bosnians, the Serbs are going to attack right away. The Russians are going to start supplying the Serbs, almost certainly. ...You’re going to have a wider war, we’re going to be on the ground, the British and French are out, and you’re going to have enormous consequences flow from this decision to lift the arms embargo.”

And so the pattern of talking tough and doing little continues, and in its wake the American public is deeply troubled by the suffering of the Bosnians, angered by the brutality of the Serbs, but lacking a clear understanding of which response would best address the crisis and lead to its eventual solution.

This may change in the weeks to come. If President Clinton is able to convince the allies to strike hard at Serbian positions, or if Senator Dole decides to move his initiative to a vote, the pattern may be broken.

But the doomsayers are partially right on one point. There will be consequences from such actions, and the American public will have to be prepared not only for those consequences but also for the necessary responses. It will require a sustained educational campaign and decisive leadership. But as the ATFB-Zogby Group poll shows, the public can be won over to support such action.

In fact the ATFB, which has been working to strengthen U.S. policy on Bosnia for more than three years, is a microcosm of the nation at large. Directed by Khalid Saffouri, the ATFB is an umbrella organization for a large number of groups which are committed to changing U.S. policy to protect the Bosnian people from Serb aggression, and includes Arab American, Jewish, Muslim, Christian and secular non-denominational human rights organizations. The task Force meetings are an impressive example of how even organizations which have worked at cross-purposes in the past are able to band together to prevent what they all see as a tragic abandonment of moral responsibility on the part of the West. For while the ATFB is active primarily in the United States, Saffouri and other leaders periodically attend conferences of with leaders of similar organizations in Europe to discuss the possibility of a unified strategy on certain points.

As the ATFB has shown, the commitment to basic human rights in this country is strong enough to override religious and ideological boundaries. The ATFB, and the American public generally, is hoping that their political leadership will override partisan political boundaries to articulate and undertake a strong stance against Serbian aggression and brutality in Bosnia.

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