War in Europe: The US public - Clinton must rally support

As popular backing dwindles, the President will have to seek the ethical high ground
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The Independent Online
This weekend is the unofficial beginning of summer in the US. "Gonna Be a Tan- Fastic Weekend," hollered the New York Post yesterday as the traffic jams started to form from Maine to Southern California under clear blue skies.

But it is also the weekend when America remembers its war dead. Tomorrow is Memorial Day, and the President will lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, America's memorial to the unknown soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. His words will speak of past sacrifices, history and memory; but his thoughts will be focused on a present-day conflict, and the waning public support for a war in which so far the only American casualties have been in a training accident.

Bill Clinton has a problem. For the moment it is only a notional one, a lack of public support for a conflict that is being fought from the air, without ground forces, which he can conduct without the active backing of Congress. But the poll figures which came out last week from Gallup, showing his own approval rating plunging and national opinion sliding away, will have furrowed plenty of brows.

The figures echo the White House's own weekly internal polling. In an administration that follows opinion poll figures the way that many people watch the lottery numbers, the ebbing of public support is a significant event. The polls showed public support climbing in the weeks immediately after the war started, and even a growing appetite for ground troops. All of that has passed. There is a balance between those who back and those who oppose the air war; there is solid opposition to ground troops; and there is a desire for a bombing pause, the solution proposed by many in Europe which has been slapped down by the White House on every occasion.

Time is part of the problem. "There is some natural impatience with some who would like to see this over with," the White House spokesman, Joe Lochart, said last week. But there is another, deeper problem: the unintended casualties in the Balkans have alienated public opinion. The conservative right was opposed to the war in any case, because it saw it as another Clintonian escapade; the White House depended on support from the centre and left. The key argument was moral, not realist: this was about values. The piles of bodies that resulted from American strikes helped to erode the argument.

"Disapproval of the air war increased by 21 percentage points since mid- April among Americans highly concerned about civilians being hurt or killed by the Nato attacks," said the Pew Centre, a US think tank. "The public now worries as much about civilian victims in Yugoslavia as about US troops."

The Pew Centre's own polling showed a sharp shift in mid-May. "In April, people who were very worried about Serbian civilians supported the air strikes. Today, those very worried about Serbian civilians oppose the air strikes."

The administration's insistent focus on public opinion is roundly criticised by its opponents. "I don't think we have a consistent, comprehensive foreign policy in this country right now," Elizabeth Dole, a candidate for the Republican nomination in the 2000 Presidential election, said last week. "Too often it's been a matter of, 'How's this going to look politically?' and 'Which way are the winds blowing?' And then the policy is set."

All presidents have had to consider public opinion when they have dispatched troops abroad. The less pressing the argument for national security, the clearer the need to sound out the nation. What can be argued plausibly by critics of the White House is that the administration has not made its case clearly enough or often enough. All of this proceeded from basic misjudgements about the nature of the conflict, and false assumptions about how the war would unfold.

The White House started off believing that this would be a short war. In the past few weeks it has started to shift into gear, with tougher statements of will. It has focused more heavily on demonising the regime in Belgrade. The indictment of Mr Milosevic as a war criminal may have complicated the diplomatic equation, but it has shored up the moral argument for carrying on the war.

"It will reassure the victims of Belgrade's atrocities in Kosovo, and it will deter future war crimes by establishing that those who give the orders will be held accountable," the President said after the indictment was issued. "It will make clear to the Serbian people who is responsible for this conflict and who is prolonging it."

And, he might have said, it will make clear to the American people that this is not just a Quixotic venture in a distant land: it is, by Mr Clinton's arguments, a moral crusade against evil. Memorial Day may be a time to shift that argument a little more into the public domain.

Politically, there has been no consensus about the war in Washington. "The clear lines of debate that marked the Vietnam war aren't present," wrote Carl P Leubsdorf of the Dallas Morning News yesterday. "That has been especially evident in Congress. Whatever lack of clarity the administration has displayed has been more than matched by the way that lawmakers have approached the issues."

This has been a double-edged sword for the White House: on the one hand, it has had no coherent opposition, and despite repeated arguments, no one has really moved to make the war come to an end. On the other hand, it is very unclear what will happen when the White House moves to despatch more peacekeeping troops, let alone if it really started to talk about a more aggressive operation.

One thing is clear: whatever his many failings, Bill Clinton has an instinctive feel for the public mood, and a rare talent for responding to it. As the time for hard decisions approaches, the White House will have to use its best asset to shift the argument.