Bastiaan Bommelje, historian

"This war is a justified crusade", spoke the president. "At stake are the fundamental values of freedom, democracy and humanity." The year was 1963; the president John F. Kennedy; the war the one in Vietnam. In other words, it is not the first time that the West got caught in its own rhetorics. The way this happened in the Kosovo conflict was pithily described in this paper by Michael Stein (NRC Handelsblad, 15 May). His reasoning, however, that the present failure can only be made good by continuing the war until total victory on all fronts is gained, "because otherwise NATO is finished", can easily be reversed.

Because the longer the war lasts, the larger will be the disagreement within NATO, whereas a war with ground troops will even result in a direct breach with Italy and Greece and most probably to a government crisis in Germany. A transeuropean or transatlantic crisis will be next.

Stein's logic is the same one with which the USA endured in their tragic mistake in Vietnam: if 'we' stop the war, 'the role of the USA as leader of the free West is finished", according to the advisors of Kennedy and Johnson at the time. They were convinced that the whole of South East Asia and parts of the Pacific would be 'lost', if that war was not won. According to the generals victory was within reach. "The air war is going according to plan", they said in 1965, " the enemy is about to collapse." The opposite was true.

History knows no analogies and Kosovo is not Vietnam. Still there are similarities, which go further than the false belief in the effectiveness of the bombing, the steady escalation of hostilities as well as the tragic that the West "can not lose", but also can not win. The main similarity perhaps is that the West obviously does not understand the nature of the conflict and that it is not prepared to honestly admit this in our era of television democracy.

Western politicians for instance have never been able to give a clear answer to what former Yugoslavia actually is : a collection of states in which happen to live all sorts of ethnic groups, or a collection of ethnic groups divided over more or less random states. I fear that they have not even asked themselves this question. That is why the West was on the one hand extremely fast with recognition of separatist republics (Slovenia, Croatia), while on the other hand doubting with fatal consequences (Bosnia). For the same reason the West allows ethnic cleansing as a means to reaching state stability (the expulsion by the Croats of 200.000 Serbs from the Krajina), or the partition of a country (in Bosnia still 1 Million refugees are living in containers, although they are allowed to go home according to the Dayton agreement, and the West is not doing anything to help them), whereas in other places ethnic cleansing is a reason for bombing. That is why the West thinks it has won the multi-ethnic state Bosnia, whereas many Bosnian Serbs think differently. They got their Republika Srpska, 49 % of Bosnian territory (for 30 % of the population), linked to the Serbian motherland, to which they are linked for 80 % of their economic transactions. In Bosnia the West was unwilling to supply the almost defenseless Bosnian muslims with weapons, whereas they now have the UCK fighting the ground war in Kosovo. In Bosnia the West had endless patience in negotiating a settlement with the war parties, whereas in Rambouillet the Americans tried to force the Serbs to agree in 10 days with a dictated agreement (the other NATO countries had themselves de facto excluded from the negotiations). The whole point is that leading Western politicians do not wish to understand that Kosovo is part of an inherent, extremely complicated, regional and historical-ideological problem, that can not be translated into 'soundbites' nor can be approached with the notion that it is not possible to shape one's own society, but that this is different for rest of the world. The thought that the issue in Kosovo is a simple conflict between a diabolic dictator and the forces of 'freedom, democracy and humanity' is vis-a-vis the humanitarian catastrophe even undefendable and ignorant.

By starting this war, the West has complicated the regional problems, worsened human suffering and favoured anti-democratic forces - and (just like in Vietnam) the end of the war will have the same result. That is why the West can not win the war, not even if their soldiers win. The real consequences, I fear, of the destabilisation, the destruction, the mutual hate, the economic catastrophe as a result of the wrong Western policy, will only become clear to their full extent afterwards. Would there be one politician apart from Tony Blair, who believes that Kosovo will ever be a peaceful, multi-ethnic province of Yugoslavia ? Yes: the American Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and her aid Strobe Talbott. And this again shows something about these two 'experts' that forced Clinton to start bombing. Just like the McNamara's and McBunby's during the Vietnam war ther are impeccable liberals who attribute much value to 'freedom, democracy and humanity, but who have an even larger impatience and a much larger overrating of their own abilities. And just like with Vietnam the president decided on basis of a 'bunker mentality', which left no room for counterarguments or opposite advice, not even from the Pentagon or the CIA.

History knows no analogies and Kosovo is not Vietnam. Still there are similarities. One of them is the growing disagreement in the West on a policy which is not just unclear, incoherent and incapable, but which also leaves no room for maneuvering, except in the direction of further escalation. It is a policy that will float on the rhetorics of human rights for as long as it takes, but which in reality has led to Vietnam-like nightmare: to save Bosnia it was divided; to rid Yugoslavia of an anti-democratic dictator it is bombed back to the Stone Age and to protect the Kosovars they are killed with cluster bombs, dipped in depleted uranium.