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The shadow of Vietnam hangs heavily over events in Yugoslavia. Once again Western policymakers have proven unable to grasp the reality of events in distant lands with complex backgrounds.

Both disasters began with bad bouts of historical amnesia. In Vietnam we were supposed to forget the 1954 Geneva Accords that had promised early reunification of Vietnam, and to ignore the brutal suppression of procommunist elements in South Vietnam soon after. Instead we were presented with the image of vicious guerrillas backed by Hanoi and China who had suddenly emerged from the darkness to overthrow a friendly and legitimate South Vietnamese government. Massive intervention by our side was thoroughly justified — morally, legally and politically.

In Yugoslavia we were supposed to forget the dreadful World War II massacres of Serbs at the hands of pro-Nazi Croatians and Muslims. Instead it was taken for granted that with the Western-encouraged, post-Cold War breakup of former Yugoslavia, the Serbs would naturally accept minority status in an artificial, Muslim-dominated state of Bosnia and in a still fairly unrepentant Croatia. And this was in a part of the world where memories last long and revenge is fierce.

When the Serbs did retaliate by brutally cleansing some of the areas from which they themselves had been brutally cleansed little more than a generation earlier, we were supposed to be shocked and horrified. No one criticized the Western policymakers who had created the mess in the first place.

The parallels continue in the way the West, having worked itself into a lather of moral indignation, has then bypassed numerous chances to end the fighting. In Vietnam, the obvious solution all along was to get North and South to talk to each other and seek compromise.

But to our Cold War moralists that was selling out to the communist enemy, a Munich that would see the rest of Southeast Asia collapse like dominoes. So instead of compromise we ended up with total confrontation, total defeat for the West, 3 million dead, the criminal bombing of Cambodia and Laos, and no dominoes.

In Bosnia, and to some extent Croatia, the obvious answer was to separate the warring ethnic groups into autonomous regions. But when the West Europeans finally began to realize this, with the Vance-Owen proposals for a partial breakup of Bosnia, they were told haughtily by the United States that “we are not into maps.”

In retrospect it was not a very intelligent response, particularly since just a few years later and with many more tens of thousands killed or displaced, the U.S., with its Dayton accords, decided that it was very much into maps after all. That ended the conflict, though not without a lot more Western moralizing about the need to punish war criminals and to keep the framework of the Bosnian state intact. (The U.S. saw a Bosnian breakup as a threat to its own shining model of unity in ethnic diversity, just as a Vietnam reunification was a threat to its dogmatic belief that no one could possibly want to live under a communist regime).

But the mistakes did not end there. With Dayton there had been some NATO bombing of Serbian positions and threats of more. From this came the idea that it was the bombing, not the maps, that had forced a Serbian concession. That, combined with a by-now thoroughly anti-Serb bias in Western media and official attitudes, set the stage for the Kosovo disaster.

True, Serbian crackdowns in Kosovo leading to the rise of the radical KLA guerrilla movement also helped set the stage. But from then on the Serbian dilemma closely followed that of the U.S. in Vietnam — ruthless military action to root out guerrillas enjoying popular support, atrocities by troops in the field, massive destruction in the countryside and displacement of population, further radicalization and more support for guerrillas, even if there was more logic and chance of success for the Serbs in Kosovo than there was for the U.S. in Vietnam.

In this situation the only way to avoid massive killing lies in talking to moderates on the other side to find a compromise as soon as possible. This was rejected by the U.S. in Vietnam, and under the recent U.S.-sponsored doctrine that says anyone who attacks me or my friend is a terrorist who has to be exterminated, Belgrade was also entitled to reject it.

Fortunately, in Kosovo, unlike Vietnam, outside pressure guaranteed that there would be talks. But for talks to succeed, the West needed to distance itself from KLA radicals and throw full backing behind the moderates. This it has not done. This failure, combined with more threats to bomb the Serbs if they did not bow to Western wishes, strengthened the no-compromise elements in the KLA and undercut the ethnic Albanian moderates.

Now we have the rejection of the very reasonable Russian proposal to stop the bombing and let the Kosovo refugees return (dislike of Moscow and concepts of Slavic unity play a role not unlike that played by fear of China in Vietnam). Even stranger is the abrupt way the West has dismissed the willingness of the leader of the Kosovo moderates, Ibrahim Rugova, to negotiate directly with Yugoslavia in Belgrade.

He is acting under duress, we are told. But at least he has fared better than South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem, who was assassinated when he looked like wanting to negotiate with the North for an end to the war.

Shallow-minded media bear much of the blame for this crude immaturity in Western policies. They have little interest in historical background. They find it much easier to report what they can see in front of them rather than make the effort to go out and report the other side. So like Hanoi and the Viet Cong, Belgrade and the Serbs can do no right, their enemies can do no wrong and their leaders wear horns.

Policymakers find it easy to swim with the media tide. To oppose the conventional, hawk-confrontational wisdom is to be seen as a wimp who should be hung out to dry and excluded from the information/decision-making loop, as we saw with the few in Washington in the ’60s who had the courage and common sense to oppose hardline solutions over Vietnam.

Yasushi Akashi, currently candidate to be Tokyo governor, was the U.N. representative who helped mediate a settlement in Cambodia in the ’90s and was then sent to sort out the Bosnian conflict. U.S. contempt for his wimpish willingness to listen to the Serbian side and seek compromise solutions saw him forced out of Bosnia in semi-disgrace.

Recently I had the chance to ask him why he had never tried to publicize his own side of the Bosnian story. His acerbic reply: “Over Yugoslavia, you simply cannot trust anyone to report you properly.”

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