Since time immemorial, truth has been a very slippery matter in the ongoing Balkan conflagration -- not only on the ground in Kosovo and Bosnia, but in the "truths" we conjure as witnesses from afar.

During a brief visit to Sarajevo last month, Bill Clinton surveyed the results of Western statecraft in the Balkans and pronounced himself satisfied. "Across most of central and southeastern Europe, the progress of open societies and open markets has exceeded our most optimistic hopes," the president declared.

With one NATO army of occupation propping up the precarious partition of Bosnia and a second bearing witness to the ethnic cleansing of Serbs by vengeful Kosovar Albanians, such a rosy assessment might seem misplaced. With little sign of democracy, tolerance or respect for human rights anywhere in the Balkans, some enterprising reporter might have asked the president, famous for his etymological precision, to define "open." In fact, Clinton has manufactured his own version of Balkan Truth that most Americans, whatever their view of the president himself, happily endorse. They do so not because Clinton's truth conforms to the facts on the ground but because it fits nicely with the prevailing wisdom about American global indispensability, sustained on the cheap.

First in Bosnia and more recently in Kosovo, according to this view, the United States has frustrated the evil designs of a would-be Hitler, prevented the recurrence of genocide in Europe, and planted the seeds of peace and ethnic harmony. Thanks to America, righteousness has prevailed.

As Julie Mertus makes clear in Kosovo: How Myths and Truths Started a War (Univ. of California, $55; paperback, $19.95), President Clinton's mythmaking forms part of a longstanding Balkan tradition. Mertus, who teaches law at Ohio Northern University, also demonstrates -- albeit unintentionally -- the appeal of myth as an antidote to the vexing realities of history.

Her thesis is that conflict in Kosovo "was not preordained by ancient hatreds. Rather, the war was ignited by more recent storytelling." In the 1980s, Serb intellectuals, unscrupulous politicians and an irresponsible media manipulated for political purposes a series of controversial incidents: student protests, an alleged sexual assault of a Serb peasant by two ethnic Albanians, the murder of Yugoslav soldiers by a deranged Albanian recruit, and the alleged poisoning of Albanian schoolchildren. The result, according to Mertus, was to incite among Serbs a widespread sense of national victimization.

"Once we see ourselves as victims," Mertus writes, as if enunciating a universal principle, "we no longer feel bound by moral considerations in becoming perpetrators." Brainwashed into believing that Kosovar Albanians were the enemy, Serbs viewed them with distrust and treated them with contempt. One result was to radicalize ethnic Albanians, thereby instigating a self-perpetuating cycle of violence. To break that cycle, Mertus advances a remedy that is less political than therapeutic: She would encourage "conditions in which both Serbs and Albanians can tell their own Truths and listen to the others' Truth without becoming disparaging, and without folding up in a state of fear or victimization."

What this means in practical terms is not entirely clear. But Mertus herself renders the question moot. In a postscript, she abandons altogether the notion that Serbia's problems somehow originate in Serbia. The fault lies elsewhere. Indeed, the fault is ours. The radicalization of Kosovar Albanians stems not from inflammatory Serb storytelling but from "inaction by the international community." If Kosovars have been unable "to live in peace with justice," it is because the outside world has deprived them of the opportunity to do so. Absolving Serbs and ethnic Albanians of responsibility for their predicament, Mertus succumbs to her own comforting Balkan myth: "We have failed."

When it comes to the manufacture of phony Balkan truths, Philip Corwin knows just whom to blame. A career civil servant with the United Nations, Corwin served briefly -- and ineffectively -- as the United Nation's chief political officer in Sarajevo during the summer of 1995. In Dubious Mandate: A Memoir of the UN in Bosnia, Summer 1995 (Duke, $27.95), his angry diary-memoir of that assignment, he sets out to settle old scores. The real obstacle to peace in Bosnia, he insists, was not evil Serbs. It was biased journalists ("passionate purveyors of malodorous piety") and corrupt Bosnian officials ("gangsters wearing coats and ties") who conspired to discredit the United Nations mission and to induce NATO to intervene militarily against the Bosnian Serbs.

Alas, Corwin's account does little to refurbish the UN's tenuous claims to professionalism and effectiveness. If anything, Dubious Mandate confirms one's worst suspicions about that organization and its culture. The tone throughout is mean-spirited, self-pitying and almost comically self-absorbed. ("As I took my difficult shower from the chest-high faucet across the hall this morning, I thought about the indignities of war.") Dismissive of power -- especially force -- as the currency of international politics, Corwin offers little as an alternative other than "impartiality," "diplomacy" and, above all, deference to the United Nations and its officials.

Its 133 pages of actual text retailing for a hefty $40, Balancing the Balkans, by Raymond Tanter and John Psarouthakis (St. Martin's) qualifies in at least once sense as a valuable book. In terms of content, however, its richness lies in obfuscating jargon rather than insight. The authors offer the book as a "debate" between globalism and tribalism. Tanter believes that, given a chance, "secularist moderation might trump nationalist extremism" in the Balkans. Psarouthakis meanwhile believes that American-style democracy is not exportable and "that there is little market for its moderation in a world of parochial hatreds."

Not too surprisingly, the authors reconcile their disagreement by splitting the difference. Their solution: The United States and the major European powers should orchestrate a balance of power among rival Balkan groups -- in effect, imposing permanent ethnic partition -- and then promote economic development as the basis of long-term integration, cooperation and interdependence. Toward that end, the United States should sponsor a Balkan "peace process" and provide economic support to the Balkans on a scale comparable to that offered Egypt and Israel. Once Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Albanians et al. become rich enough (the authors don't venture to speculate on how many decades that is likely to take) they won't want to fight.

Of the four books reviewed here, The War in Bosnia-Herzegovina: Ethnic Conflict and International Intervention, by Steven L. Burg and Paul S. Shoup (M.E. Sharpe, $49.95) is easily the best. Focusing on the Bosnian conflict from its onset in 1992 through the Dayton settlement of 1995 and its aftermath, the authors, who teach at Brandeis and the University of Virginia, respectively, offer a detailed and judicious account of the war, based on prodigious research. It is a superior work of scholarship.

Like Corwin, but far more effectively, Burg and Shoup take on the received truths of the Bosnian war. Rather than perpetuate myths, they demolish them. The authors demonstrate that the Bosnian government in Sarajevo was neither more democratic nor less committed to a nationalist agenda than its antagonists. They show that all sides engaged in atrocities and ethnic cleansing, the Serbs doing so on the most extensive scale, the Croats and Bosnian Muslims trailing behind. They point out that in banging the drum of extreme nationalism, Balkan leaders, whatever their ethnic affiliation, were responding, at least in part, to a popular mandate. "Much as we may not like it," the authors note, "it was the nationalists who were elected by their peoples to lead the country in 1990. The nationalists retained the loyalties of their respective groups throughout the conflict. Indeed, they continue to command such loyalty even today."

Burg and Shoup are particularly effective in tracing the contours of evolving U.S. policy toward Bosnia. Contrary to the Balkan Truth concocted by President Clinton, the authors explain U.S. intervention -- both its scope and its timing -- not as a principled defense of democracy and human rights but as a desperate effort to shore up narrowly conceived administration interests seemingly at risk. Indeed, Burg and Shoup argue persuasively that those interests had less to do with Bosnia as such than with domestic politics and concerns for U. S. credibility.

"In the end," they argue, "the U. S. and other Western policymakers did only what was consistent with their own interests." As a result, the peace secured by Western intervention -- like the so-called Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina created at Dayton -- is largely a fiction, reflecting not the requirements for a durable settlement but the determination of the United States and its allies to look virtuous while doing the absolute minimum. The result is "an unstable peace under which the parties [have] continued their pursuit of fundamentally incompatible goals by other than military goals," while arming themselves for the "inevitable resumption of fighting."

For those seeking the real truth about the Balkans, that bleak judgment may be as good as any. Almost certainly, it is a truth with which Clinton's successor will have to grapple.

Andrew J. Bacevich directs the Center for International Relations at Boston University.