Old fears feed US confusion on Bosnia Americans see the Holocaust in the plight of the Muslims, but the Vietnam lesso n makes them reluctant to help

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SHE HAS been here all day, but now, in the basement of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, Ida Vogel, an American Jew, is once again moved by what she sees: pictures of starved men behind barbed-wire fences, babies lying motionless in a street, a man begging for his life before his tormentors. "Look, look," she mutters repeatedly to her friend. "It's so sad."

Mrs Vogel, aged 66, from Oldbridge, New Jersey, has wandered into a temporary exhibition at the two-year-old museum. She is not looking at things that happened 40 years ago; these are photographs from the war in Bosnia. Her reaction is telling. She is angry - she sees the Muslims as victims of persecution and likens them to the Jews in Nazi Germany. She is also profoundly ignorant about the war and thinks America should have nothing to do with it.

"We have done enough in two world wars over there. I don't see why our boys should get killed again. I really don't," she says, adding that this time it is for "them" - the Europeans - to sort it out. Her lack of knowledge about Bosnia is a bit extreme even by US standards. Until this moment, she claims, she did not even know there was any war in the Balkans.

Once you appreciate the conflicting emotions of Mrs Vogel - instant moral outrage combined with a deep unwillingness to get involved - you are a long way towards understanding why America has been so at odds with Europe throughout the crisis. Similar sentiments are reflected in the inflated rhetoric of East Coast columnists, who warn against US entanglement but accuse Britain and France of abandoning the Muslims and of appeasing the Serbs like Chamberlain appeased Hitler at Munich, and in the desire ofUS politicians to arm the Muslims.

The fear of involvement is not hard to grasp. This is a war in a land few Americans could find on a map. And Bosnia holds too many echoes of Vietnam: a confusing, distant struggle with no discernible quick route to victory. Since Vietnam, Americans have showed that they have an appetite only for military actions that can be concluded rapidly - Panama, Grenada, even the Gulf - followed by feel-good parades back home.

Further, though, there is a gathering nostalgia for old-fashioned American isolationism, of the kind practised in the last century - when Britain looked after much of the globe - and in the years between the world wars. It is a feeling that is verbalisedby the incoming conservative majority in Congress and reflected in the deepening American mistrust of the two international institutions most implicated in Bosnia, Nato and the United Nations.

All of this President Clinton understands, even if now he has agreed to deploy US troops to help in any eventual withdrawal of the UN peace-keepers. (And even that decision, if it has to be implemented, will carry enormous political risk for him.) "The driving force among the American public is to stay out. Clinton reflects the public sense perfectly," says Jim Hoagland, foreign affairs columnist at the Washington Post. "The other driving force is the feeling of a strong moral concern for the Muslims asvictims."

It is this emphatic identification with the plight of the Muslims that has created the worst friction between the US and the allies over Bosnia. Hoagland, who has not joined in the anti-British tirade, believes it began in 1992, when the first pictures of Serb internment camps began to surface in newspapers and on evening news programmes. "The camps, the systematic rapes, the atrocities by the Serbs, that is when American opinion was set that the Muslims were the victims and the Serbs the villains, and that remains true now. And I think it's right," he says. "

More than just the impact of news pictures, there may be other explanations for the siding with the Muslims. America is a moralistic country which has often conducted foreign policy on moralistic lines, notably under Woodrow Wilson. It prefers things to be black and white; a war is more understandable once you have separated the aggressor from the victim. And there is the Holocaust itself. America feels the history of it acutely (perhaps, in part, because through most of Hitler's pogrom, most of non-Jewish America turned a blind eye and refused to accept Jewish refugees). Once Americans began to see the war in terms of genocide by the Serbs, it was not long before they superimposed the Jewish experience on to the Muslims.

It has been against that background of moral indignation that politicians on Capitol Hill have been demanding an end to the arms embargo against Bosnia. To them, the wrong committed is clear and unanswerable: the West agreed to the establishment of the Bosnian state, gave it a seat at the UN, and then refused it the right to defend itself against aggression.

Fearful of the damage that could be done to Nato by ending the embargo unilaterally, the White House now opposes the move. It is likely, however, that the Republicans will be able to muster a majority in Congress for ending the embargo that will be big enough to override any presidential veto. It is partly with this in sight that Nato and the UN are now scrambling to prepare a possible withdrawal of peace-keepers, in the belief that their position there will become untenable once the new arms start flowing.

And it is the same moral certitude that has allowed some of America's pre-eminent writers in recent days to attack Britain and France and, personally, the UN commander in Bosnia, Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose, for alleged appeasement. They are suspicious of past British and French alliances with the Serbs and apparently convinced that both powers care little for the plight of the Muslims. Most strident have been two writers in the New York Times, Anthony Lewis and William Safire.

"How did it happen that, 50 years after the Nazis, human beings are being humiliated and killed in Europe because of their religion?" asked Lewis in one column. He offered a number of answers, one being the absence of Baroness Thatcher and the pusillanimity of her successor, John Major, who has "jelly in his spine". General Rose, he went on, had become a "symbol of the sell-out" to the Serbian forces, while Britain and France had acted deliberately to prevent effective efforts to halt the Serbs. "Britain especially: its performance in the destruction of Bosnia has brought back to life perfidious Albion." General Rose, he suggested in another column, was "no longer bothering to conceal his indifference to Serbian aggression".

The more conservative Safire has written in similar vein. "Lt. Gen. Sir Michael Rose, the reincarnation of Neville Chamberlain . . ." began his most recent barrage. And later: "Rose's repugnance at `war-making' when UN havens become war zones symbolises Britain's least fine hour." Safire's conclusion: "Give serious bombing a chance."

The anger of these men is probably well shared by the Clinton administration and by those ordinary Americans who have taken notice of the war. For now, though, their government is likely to disappoint them. The Washington strategy this week: to lay asidegrievances over the handling of the crisis by Europe and to go along with London and Paris in trying to negotiate (did anyone say appease?) a diplomatic settlement with the Serbs. But then who knows what the thinking here will be next week?