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The role of public opinion in the Kosovo conflict

The evolution of international involvement in the crisis and conflict over Kosovo clearly showed the complexity of the relationship between public opinion and decisions to use military force. More generally, it emphasized the intricate ways in which contemporary democracies deal with the eternal tensions between the demands of peace and the demands of justice (Everts, 2002). As in all cases involving the use of military force - but perhaps even more than in other cases - the legitimacy of the action in the eyes of the public was at stake and the importance of public opinion was highlighted in this conflict.

To carry out air strikes against military targets out of fear that their publics would not support other more costly actions was a risky strategy for the governments concerned. Faced with the probability that in a television age, the fact that the public would become aware of the damage done to Serbia, could entail heavy political costs. Would the public at home continue to tolerate rising civilian casualties if the bombing was not having any discernible effect?

High tech warfare is governed by two constraints - avoiding civilian casualties and avoiding risks to pilots - that are in direct contradiction. To target effectively you have to fly low. If you fly low you lose pilots. Fly high and you get civilians (Ignatieff, 2000: 62). Many politicians acted on the assumption that their publics today do not accept casualties in a conflict that is not seen as entailing vital interests; Luttwak's (1994) 'zero-casualty' hypothesis could be seen as not merely an option, but a mandatory war requirement.

Governments may be mistaken in thinking that public opinion acts as a narrow constraint on the use of military force for purposes other than the protection of immediate national interests. But they can also be forgiven for thinking so, because a superficial reading of the data often suggests the existence of a strong reluctance among the public to countenance the possible consequences of warfare. Whatever the case, this perception can serve as a useful alibi to avoid taking responsibility for risky actions or to adopt strategies that avoid casualties but are militarily probably ineffective. It is notable, for instance, in this connection, that the Clinton administration ruled out since the very beginnings the use of ground forces for fear of jeopardizing public support.4

For all of these reasons, the Kosovo case is an interesting litmus test for assessing the extent to which the governments involved did indeed succeed or rather fail in mobilizing public support from the beginning to the end, and to explore which factors actually determined the degree of support.

This section - and the following three - all focus on the evolution over time of support for using force in a particular conflict, looking at cross-national differences and focusing on the evolution of support for such actions over time.5 In the case of Kosovo, given the framing of the public debates at the time and the available data, our attention will be focused on the general support for the air strikes undertaken by NATO and on the issue of sending ground forces, but we are also able to pay some attention to support for alternative strategies and diplomatic efforts, discussed at the time to deal with the problem: Should NATO, for instance, do more of the same or send ground forces, or rather stop the military actions and return to negotiations?

From the beginning, critics questioned whether the military actions would be effective (and hence justified) without sending ground forces into the conflict, or even showing a willingness to do so. It was argued repeatedly in this connection, however, that the public, while possibly supportive of air strikes, would not accept this extension of the war for fear of casualties and, hence, that NATO governments were operating under severe constraints.

Others criticized the bombing for quite different reasons. Arguments were voiced from the beginning, becoming more intense as the conflict went on and the bombing failed to have the intended results, that bombing should be replaced, or at least accompanied, by further efforts to bring about a negotiated settlement.

In this section, we first review data on support for air strikes, both cross-nationally and over time, then we describe trends in support for the use of ground troops and eventually data about other policy alternatives. We analyze the data first comparatively and then focusing on trend patterns for those countries on which enough data are available.

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