A SENIOR Clinton administration official recently had dinner with a Croatian counterpart who was visiting Washington to discuss the civil war in the Balkans.
When they started serious table talk, the American was taken aback by his guest's sense of context. The Croatian explained the fighting in the former Yugoslavia by referring to grievances that had occurred not in recent years, but in the Middle Ages. "He hadn't spoken more than five sentences before he was back in the 14th century," the United States official told reporters.
There are many reasons why the US has been unable to stop the spread of the Balkans war. Among them are the reluctance of allies to get more deeply involved and the difficulty of any Western military action in the tough Bosnian terrain. (European reaction to safe havens, Page 7.)
A main cause of the failure of two years of US and United Nations diplomacy, however, is surely that the West is living in a different era of history than Belgrade and Zagreb and Sarajevo.
Underlying the US official's retelling of his dinner anecdote was a sense of resignation. Along with other US policymakers, he is well aware that nationalistic Balkans leaders invoke ancient feuds to solidify their domestic positions.
But if Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic and his ilk are to cling to their nationalist hurts, either through cynical manipulation or real belief, what's a pragmatic US policymaker to do?
The gulf of understanding, of how Balkans figures will react to diplomatic offers and countermoves, is simply too wide. "I've just been struck by the emotion of this thing," said the US official.
In retrospect, mistakes of diplomacy at least partly caused by this cultural gulf can be readily identified. Delay and missteps by the Bush administration, after all, are one reason that the Clinton White House has faced nothing but bad options for its own Balkans policies.
Bush officials clung too long to the belief that today, in Europe, it was close to unthinkable that neighbors would take up arms against each other.
In June 1991, as separatist passions in Yugoslavia neared the boiling point, Secretary of State James Baker III traveled to Belgrade and told Yugoslavs that the status quo should be maintained. Differences should be resolved peacefully within the context of a unitary state, Mr. Baker said.
Instead of heeding this warning, the Yugoslav republics of Croatia and Slovenia declared their independence shortly thereafter.
The Serb-dominated Yugoslav army then interpreted the US position in a way the administration never intended. Believing it had tacit US support, the army invaded Slovenia to try to keep the Yugoslav confederation together by force.
There were indigenous reasons for the beginning of fighting, of course. But as the world watched in horror, war bloomed. Slovenia mounted a successful resistance. The bloodied Yugoslav army withdrew - and turned its attention to Croatia.
Then came what was perhaps another mistake by the West. At the urging of some European nations, diplomatic recognition was accorded the separatist Yugoslav republics in January 1992. Western nations thought this move was the equivalent of hanging a "hands off" sign on Croatia and Bosnia.
Serbs took a more primitive view of the move. Inflamed that the breakup of their nation was being legitimized, they gambled that the West didn't care enough to enforce its warning. As fighting flared in Bosnia, they were proved right.
Throughout 1992, the Bush administration exercised caution in its Balkans moves. US officials insisted that the US had no direct national interests in the region, and that the problem should be left to Europeans to handle.
This attitude was only reinforced by advice from the Pentagon, which continued to argue that massive force would be needed to settle the Bosnian conflict.
Even as President Clinton has contemplated using force, US military leaders continue to worry that Bosnia could turn into a tar baby. Some 75,000 Western troops might have to be stationed in Bosnia for a decade to enforce a peace plan, Gen. John Galvin, former commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, told Congress on May 25. "Are we willing to contemplate that?" General Galvin asked.
The fundamental problem may be that the US and Europe have tried to deal with Balkans leaders, and particularly Serb strongman Milosevic, as if they are typical 20th-century European politicians. Economic sanctions, arms embargoes, stiff diplomatic notes - all have been invoked without a credible threat of force behind them.
It's no accident that Milosevic underwent a change of heart and began backing a Balkans peace plan during the brief interregnum when it appeared President Clinton would order air strikes on Serbian targets, says Dr. Terry Deibel, a professor of security policy at the Pentagon's National War College.
The problem is that this saber-rattling should have occurred a year earlier than it did. Serb gains mean that in effect they have won the Bosnian war. "It's too late now," Dr. Deibel says.
In the end the Clinton administration decided that relations with European allies were more important than its "lift and strike" plan for bombing Serb positions and ending the arms embargo on Bosnian Muslims. At allied urging, the US dropped its more forceful approach for the "safe havens" concept of defending Muslim refugees gathered in six areas in eastern Bosnia.
It's easy for US policymakers to scoff at Europeans as wimpy on Bosnia. The other view is that the Europeans understand how the depth and complexities of Balkans hatreds make no solution an easy one. "Some of them understand the Balkans better than we do," Deibel points out.