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Why Americans Spurn US Playing the Role Of Bosnia Policeman

HOW much do US citizens care about Bosnia, anyway?

The answer, so far, is probably not enough to push the United States government into more forceful intervention in that battered Balkan nation. And therein lies a fact of life for US diplomats: The American people are not naturally interested in taking on the role of post-cold-war world policeman. It takes concerted presidential communication, as occurred before the Persian Gulf war, to change their minds.

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US voters have ambivalent attitudes about playing a neutral, blue-hat peacekeeper role, ``but the public strongly rejects'' a more activist peacemaker role, notes a recent Foreign Affairs study by Times Mirror Center opinion experts Andrew Kohut and Robert Toth.

The battle for Bosnia-Herzegovina is not something Americans appear to have given a great deal of attention. A December Times Mirror poll found 13 percent of respondents judging that they followed the Bosnian fighting ``very closely.'' By way of comparison, 41 percent said they had followed the recent US midterm elections very closely. The congressional debate over whether to ratify the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) won a 16 percent rating.

Media coverage of the brutality of Bosnian fighting and the atrocities carried out against civilians has been extensive. Some specific events - such as the mortar attack on a Sarajevo market in February that killed almost 70 people and led to more intensive Western involvement - have resulted in blips of greater interest.

But on the whole, public opinion about the Bosnian conflict has been fairly stable, Mr. Toth says. The flat question ``Should the US get involved in Bosnia?'' has drawn a 30 to 40 percent ``yes'' response for the past two years, and 50 to 60 percent ``no.''

The news media seem generally pro-intervention, says Toth, a former Los Angeles Times diplomatic reporter. But many of their stories may work against this goal by repeating how complicated and intractable the conflict seems to be.

``There's a kind of fatalism in a lot of the stories,'' he says.

In general, the US public does show significantly more sympathy for the embattled Bosnian government than for Bosnia Serbs.

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As the Serbs have strutted about with battlefield victories, shunning peace entreaties and pushing UN peacekeepers around, support for more intensive NATO airstrikes has risen among US voters.

Some experts say US interest in intervention is greater than that shown in Times Mirror, Gallup, and other large national organization polls.

A study from the Washington-based Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) concludes that support for US involvement via bombing or other means ``is fairly strong.''

PIPA expert Robert Kull claims that when presented with more complete information, Americans opt for more action. Thus the question ``Would you favor or oppose sending a very large force of ground troops from various countries, including the US, to occupy contested areas and forcibly stop ethnic cleansing?'' drew a 56 percent ``favor'' response, according to PIPA data.

Whatever the level of US voter interest, the Clinton administration clearly does not feel the public is pushing it inevitably toward a wider role in Bosnia, despite the promise of US troops to help any UN peacekeeper withdrawal. Though Republican leaders such as Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas have pushed for more US action, the GOP is deeply split on Bosnian intervention.

Overall, the US public appears to favor sending in military muscle in situations where America's vital interests are clearly at stake, as with Gulf oil. If it appears that humanitarian assistance can be given without becoming mired in conflict, the US public is also supportive - as it was in the first months of the Somalia deployment.

But carefully laid public communications strategies may be capable of leading the public to more internationalist attitudes. The public would be more supportive of Bosnian intervention ``if there was more leadership on the part of the president,'' argues American University foreign-relations professor Joshua Goldstein.

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