ONCE UPON A TIME -- late last month, in fact -- we went to war to save the Kosovo Albanians. After months of negotiating and a thousand broken promises, NATO's patience was exhausted.
It was time to teach the Serbs a lesson and -- dare we suggest it -- revenge ourselves on Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, not just for Kosovo but for the years of Western humiliation in Bosnia.
But it was for the Kosovars, the 90-percent Muslim population of Serbia's Kosovo province, that we would draw the sword.
And our war is turning into disaster. The moment NATO's bombs and missiles began to fall, the Serbs struck ruthlessly against the Albanians of Kosovo.
"They are being helped by NATO, and NATO is our enemy, and now the Albanians are calling up NATO's air strikes," a young Serb official snapped angrily at me on Monday.
The separatist Kosovars -- from being merely recalcitrant or, at worst, "terrorists" -- have become fifth columnists. And fifth columns are always destroyed by occupying armies.
Thus has come about what NATO admits to be the greatest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. And already we are being deceitful to both the victims and the aggressors.
Within two days of the first air strikes -- when it became clear that the Serbs were "cleansing" their way through Kosovo; when the first 20,000 refugees washed up on the frontiers of Macedonia and Albania -- President Bill Clinton, the architect (along with Richard Holbrooke) of this particular adventure, made an astonishing statement.
He said that the bloodshed would have been "even worse" if NATO had not intervened. And he assured the American people that U.S. troops would be sent into Kosovo only in a peacekeeping role.
How happy Milosevic must have been to hear that. Already, Clinton was making excuses for NATO's air raids -- and then promising that ground troops would never be sent to fight Serbian forces in Kosovo.
So Milosevic's army pressed on eagerly. And when the next flood of Kosovars staggered into Macedonia with their stories of summary executions and house burnings, we were told yet again that things would have been worse without the air raids.
Once NATO admitted that 500,000 Kosovars had been displaced, this lie was mercifully forgotten. Instead, the air raids would be increased, the rules of engagement broadened, to end Serbia's "scorching" of Kosovo's earth. The fruits of war had become the reason for its enlargement.
A terrible formula has emerged, one that the Kosovo Albanian leadership is only beginning to understand. We in the West cared so much for their people's suffering that we went to war to end their grief and bring them peace. But we would not risk the life of a single soldier to do this.
Kaiser Wilhelm's policy -- that the Balkans were not worth the life of a single Prussian grenadier -- has been adopted to the letter by NATO.
Even as distraught women were entering Skopje with tales of the execution of intellectuals in Pristina, a British officer vouchsafed the opinion in Macedonia that "we are here simply to implement a peace agreement, and that's what we will do, if (sic) and when we get the chance."
So, more comfort for Milosevic. However reasonable this sounds in Washington and London, the message for the Serbs is clear. NATO -- supposedly the iron shield of Western democracy in the event of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe -- cannot defeat Serbia.
The men who were trained to defend the Fulder Gap against Moscow's legions are going to sit it out in the hills of Macedonia -- to act as peacekeepers "when they get the chance."
We cry for the Kosovo Albanians. Perhaps we even love them. But we will not die for them.
Instead, we seek more monsters to justify our continued war. George Robertson, Britain's beloved defense secretary, has reintroduced the world to the arch-villain Zeljko Raznatovic, also known as "Arkan," "ethnic cleanser" par excellence in Bosnia.
Indeed, Arkan is an indicted war criminal. Robertson spent some time dwelling upon the deeds of this "outrageous thug." But the fact is that Arkan's cruelty was made manifest in Bosnia, not in Kosovo. There is no evidence -- so far -- that his "Tigers" are murdering Albanians in Kosovo.
Of course, NATO cannot be humiliated on the eve of its 50th birthday. This was one of the raisons d'etre of this war. Presumably, we would have been less keen to bomb Serbia if it were the 49th birthday or the 51st birthday.
There is, needless to say, one very clear way that NATO could show its teeth -- by arresting two Serb warlords even more infamous than Arkan: General Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadjic.
How strange that Robertson didn't mention those two indicted war criminals last week. Why didn't he? Because he forgot? Or because Mladic and Karadjic happen to reside in Bosnia, in a district controlled by the very NATO troops whose reputation must be defended by going to war with Serbia?