For more than a year, the American media portrayed the Yugoslav war as a bewildering conflict between people with unpronounceable names. Mr Clinton promised to do 'more' in Yugoslavia during the election campaign, not because he had any idea what could be done, but to dent his opponent's foreign policy credentials.
But governments that swear never to accept ethnic cleansing and territorial aggression must be prepared to commit their ground troops to defeat these evils. The moment Mr Clinton ruled this out, he was bound to follow the Europeans into what a leading US commentator irreverently called the 'search for the immaculate conception' - a desire to achieve peace without offering any commitment.
Although no Clinton official offered any viable alternative, all initially claimed that the Vance- Owen plan compromised their principles. State Department officials nicknamed Cyrus Vance, their former boss and mentor, 'little Chamberlain'. Precious time and lives were lost in allowing Mr Clinton to realise that the Vance-Owen plan was the only option short of introducing Western troops.
After weeks of sniping from the sidelines, Mr Clinton chose April Fools' Day to announce that Americans had a national interest in 'limiting' ethnic cleansing. Like the Europeans last year, the administration entertained no greater desire than to remove ghastly pictures from the television screens, without becoming embroiled in the conflict. And America witnessed the same confusion already familiar in Europe.
People such as Congressman Frank McCloskey, who detested the Vietnam War and voted against the Gulf operation, demanded immediate military action, while Senator John McCain, a respected Vietnam veteran, opposed intervention. The Chiefs of Staff were asked to produce plans for contingencies no one could envisage. And retired generals described on television how American ingenuity could guide a missile up Radovan Karadzic's nostril from the comfort of Washington.
The abandonment of the debate to a narrow political elite on America's East Coast sealed the fate of Mr Clinton's efforts. It magnified expectations about the contribution the US was ready to make, and the aims of intervention were swiftly enlarged from just Bosnia to a 'victory' against 'aggression'.
Crucially, the entire debate was couched in the 'geostrategic' terms favoured by the administration's Rhodes scholars. Essentially, the establishment was chattering to itself, while most ordinary Americans, aware that a Serbian artillery shell cannot cross the Atlantic, concluded that Yugoslavia's tragedy did not merit the lives of their sons or daughters. The notion of collective security was compromised precisely by those most enamoured of its subtleties.
Politicians habitually cover indecision with a 'comprehensive' plan. Warren Christopher, the Secretary of State (who, as a good lawyer, prefers an out-of- court settlement in complicated briefs), hawked one in Europe for more than a week. Under the plan, Bosnia's Muslims were to be supplied with weapons produced by Eastern Europe's idle arms factories and financed by Saudi Arabia's coffers. While the supplies came in, US planes would ensure that any Serbian land offensive was kept at bay. This was diabolical nonsense at every level.
Saudi Arabia's involvement would have transformed the Yugoslav war into a confrontation between Islam and Christianity, precisely what everyone has tried to avoid. The idea that someone in Washington could calibrate just enough air strikes to reduce the war's intensity and just enough weapons to revive the Bosnian Muslims' fortunes befits amateurs, not aspiring security specialists. Lifting the arms embargo would have created another Afghanistan on Europe's doorstep. Mr Christopher should have saved himself the jet lag: the Europeans' rebuff was predictable even before his plane left Washington.
Far from changing his approach, however, Mr Clinton chose to use Europe as a punching bag for his frustrations. In unattributable briefings, senior US officials claimed that America's allies were spineless, and that Europe was waiting for the results of the Bosnian Serbs' referendum before doing something. Lies: the Europeans never took the referendum seriously and told Mr Christopher as much during his fruitless pilgrimage.
Enraged, the Europeans replied in kind, inviting Mr Clinton to send US ground troops to defend Bosnian safe havens - precisely what the President had ruled out from the start. Confused, the administration ran away from the entire issue. Within days, the White House claimed that its strategy was 'in a kind of a holding pattern for the moment', while Mr Clinton returned to selling his economic programme. Like most Europeans, he concluded that silence is Yugoslavia's greatest healer.
America's experience illustrates yet again the pitfalls of devising a strategy based on nothing more than media pressure. The stream of horrifying television pictures comes after a conflict has already started. Yet to foil ethnic cleansing, action had to be taken before the process had even begun. Reacting to public pressure means entering the fray late - and leaving it early, once support for intervention has faded; Mr Clinton achieved both in one month.
Yet leading the world, as Mr Clinton still wants to do, entails both responsibilities and costs. If the administration is serious about Yugoslavia, it should desist from inventing new subterfuges, such as placing soldiers in Macedonia. This republic does not need protection against Serbia. Macedonia's president shares with Serbia a fear of large ethnic Albanian minorities. On this, Serbia and Macedonia are potential allies, not enemies; just as Croatia and Serbia are partners on dividing Bosnia. Those who want to dabble in the area should not seek to park their soldiers in the sunniest Balkan spot, for no better reason than a desire to do something.
Washington should support the creation of safe havens, ensuring that the Bosnian Muslims will ultimately have a state, however small. Russia's initiative is what the West waited for, and should be welcomed.
However a Yugoslav settlement is ultimately packaged, the world's future aggressors already know that the use of force still pays, even in Europe. The task today is not how to pretend that the West's principles remain intact in the Balkans, but how to prepare for other conflicts.
This can only be achieved by transatlantic co-operation with a President who does not play to the gallery and does not substitute waffle for commitment. European governments are right to put everything down to Mr Clinton's inexperience. The verdict stands: Mr Clinton's first foreign policy challenge was met with hot air. Trying to learn how to lead while the world burns is not what American presidents are elected for.
The author is director of studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.