A MAIN lesson of history is how often leaders or nations realize too late how much has been lost by delay. Neville Chamberlain's pact with Hitler at Munich, allowing the German leader to take Czechoslovakia, was actually popular at the time. No one wanted to stir the pot over what the British prime minister called "a small country about which we know little."
Serbia is not exactly Germany in 1938; nor is Bosnia Czechoslovakia. But there are similarities in the lengths to which the West has gone to deny or finesse not only the scale of horrors this systematic genocide in Europe has wrought, but also the sowing of whirlwinds that may affect Western security.
The small world of Europe is more sensitive than Americans realize. The killing of 130,000 Bosnians and the presence of a million refugees an hour south of Munich are an assault on the entire idea of postwar Europe. It is creating a poisonous, destablized environment there. In Russia it fuels the worst kinds of nationalism facing Boris Yeltsin - dramatized by last week's visit of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic to Moscow to form a cabal of Slavic hardliners.
A year after Sarajevo was first besieged, the West is at another crossroads on Bosnia. The UN's Vance-Owen plan is not viable. Bosnian Serbs reject it, and even Cyrus Vance has honorably resigned from association with it. On the ground, "ethnic cleansing" continues. UN trucks "evacuate" refugees. Yet this serves Serbian aims: It "cleanses" Muslims from Bosnia and sets the scene for killing the remaining outgunned defenders. Croats are taking their own chunks of Bosnia, seeing the West's weakness.
President Clinton calls Bosnia "the most difficult ... problem in the world right now." He inherited the sorry fruits of inaction from his predecessor. Swift and decisive action a year ago may have checked the Serbs. But this does not absolve Mr. Clinton his role as leader of the free world. He must do something. For the White House to redefine Bosnia as an ancient feud the West can do nothing about distorts the truth. Bosnia is a genocide created by the propaganda of Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic - who
now cynically praises Clinton's hands-off policy.
A new strategy is needed; it will require effort and courage.
First, the US and its allies should support the idea of Bosnia as a key moderate, democratic, multi-ethnic regime in the Balkans - and thus truly back a civilized "new world order." This requires renouncing the ineffective previous policy and taking sides against aggression.
Second, the State Department must define Serb actions as what they are by all standards - genocide. Last week, the World Court ordered Yugoslavia to stop "acts of genocide" in Bosnia. Such a definition opens the moral dimension to discourse and action.
Third, Bosnians should be armed to defend themselves against genocide. The US armed Afghan mujahideen against Soviets in a country more tribal and less democratic. The British were not then worried about a "level killing field."
Other options: Stop Bosnian Serbs' resupply by NATO strikes on key bridges between Serbia and Bosnia. Create safe havens in Bosnia for Muslims. A White House team just back from Bosnia recommends similar types of intervention in a draft report leaked to the New York Times.
In the name of civilization, the West might consider making Sarajevo a symbol of Europe. Could the West rally to take back Sarajevo from the historic rise of barbarism - both to demonstrate its own values, and as a warning to future killers? Such an undertaking would require commitment. But as French writer Bernard Henri-Levy argues: "In Sarajevo there is no oil. There is only an idea that is the essence of Europe: tolerance and coexistence."
The US is pursuing a sanctions policy. So far, sanctions have done little. By themselves, they may even be counterproductive since they feed huge new criminal networks in Belgrade and consolidate Serb ties to Russian hardliners. If Serb banks collapse, Mr. Milosevic can resort to his ace card: starting wars. He is already poised to begin the ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo.
Dealing with Bosnia is not a matter of helping a tiny country about which most of us admittedly know little. It is a matter of facing history. Clinton may feel constrained by Europe's fears. But more European officials privately say that if Clinton leads, Europe will follow. Time is running out. The US can't solve all problems; it needn't. But we can't allow genocide and fear to define the world our children inherit.