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What kind of war is this?

Thomas Friedman of The New York Times has recently come back from a trip "on the road" where he found the American people's concentration on Kosovo has been "diluted" by the tragic events unfolding in Littleton. And I'm sure that in more recent days he would have found that the public's focus has also been on the devastating tornadoes.

Then Celinda Lake, a highly regarded Democratic pollster, came to a Monitor breakfast with some corroborative findings. She said her polling showed that the public's primary concern was school violence. Then Kosovo was cited as a secondary interest. In fact, she added, if she didn't include Kosovo on the list of issues, "then it wouldn't even be mentioned."

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In addition, House minority leader Richard Gephardt told us a few mornings later that he, too, wasn't finding much interest in Kosovo among his constituents.

Oh, yes, I think all Americans are saddened over the plight of the Albanian refugees - when they think about it. They see Yugoslavia President Slobodan Milosevic as the villain, and they would like to see him deposed.

Thus, the polls are probably right when they show the public supporting the bombing. But the same polls show far less than 50 percent of Americans would back a ground initiative on our part. So, as this struggle goes on, this president has behind him a public that simply approves an antiseptic offensive that will cost little or nothing in US casualties. Nothing more.

So it's an indecisive and less-than-intensely concerned public out there, certainly not one that's fully committed to correcting the problem. Little wonder then that people are distracted from abroad by events - yes, terrible events to be sure - at home.

I submit that the public's relative inattention to this war - despite daily headlines and on-the-scene TV coverage - stems mainly from an inability to comprehend what kind of war we are fighting.

People hear that if Mr. Milosevic isn't stopped he will spread his poisonous aggression throughout the Balkans, maybe even leading to a global war. Indeed, the analogy of Hitler, Munich, and the Holocaust is often cited.

Then we are told, by some of our skeptics, that "ethnic cleansing" has gone on in several other countries in Asia and Africa with no warlike intercession by the US - certainly nothing like our military involvement in Kosovo. "Why now?" people ask.

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Then questions are raised in Congress as to whether it is in our "national interest" to be in this war. The argument is made that this ugly Kosovo inner struggle is basically a civil war. And then the question is posed: "Can the United States police all of the civil wars that break our around the world - even if we deeply deplore what's going on?"

So Congress reflects this public indecisiveness. Indeed, the best example of this was the recent tie vote in which the House denied support to the bombing that it had previously backed.

Count me among those who are baffled by this war and what should be done by the US. I'm neither a hawk nor a dove. I'm a sparrow high up a tree looking down on the scene with total perplexity.

Who can lead us out of this confusion? Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, told us at a recent breakfast he thought it was up to the president to enlighten the public on the war that he feels is sorely needed. He recommended that Clinton keep us informed on the war - and on his thinking about the war - with frequent televised speeches.

That sounds good to me. Help us out of our bafflement, Mr. President.

And when you start to move toward negotiating a peace (could that be in the wind?), please make sure we all understand how you are going to persuade all those refugees to come back and how you are going to protect them once they are back. Short of bringing that about - as Sen. Joseph Lieberman told us breakfasters - "we lose."

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