PARIS — `THIS decision could have been taken earlier.''
Speaking on French television Wednesday night - just after NATO's ultimatum to Bosnian Serbs to withdraw their guns from around Sarajevo within 10 days or face airstrikes - former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing summed up an uneasy sentiment traversing much of Europe.
Some French officials and observers yesterday lauded France's role in getting the ultimatum, originally proposed by France, approved by NATO's 16 members. ``The West arrived late, but finally it arrived,'' wrote Le Figaro editorialist Franz-Olivier Giesbert. ``For the first time in a long while, it's France that led the game.''
But the real lessons of NATO's decision lie elsewhere - and are not good news for either French ambitions to build an independent European foreign policy, or for Clinton administration plans to leave more of Europe's security affairs to Europe.
* The NATO ultimatum was reached only after the United States and France finally found themselves on the same wavelength. The US had pressed Europeans to approve airstrikes 10 months ago, but the generally hesitant Europeans stood behind a then-hostile France. More recently, it was the US that stood back from intervention, giving cover to European countries long opposed to airstrikes, such as Britain.
* Countries of the 12-nation European Union (EU) are still not united on a Bosnia policy, two years after the war began. Greece, while not blocking a decision that by NATO rules had to be unanimous, submitted a formal note saying it opposed any military action in Bosnia.
* US support for the ultimatum was the weight that shifted the balance, demonstrating how US desires to leave Europe to handle more of its own affairs are premature at best. ``Too bad for Europe,'' said one French observer. ``We still need Washington to get anything done.''
That reality does not augur well for getting beyond the next 10 days to a final peace settlement in Bosnia.
The US still opposes forcing an EU peace plan on Bosnian Muslims, whom Washington considers the war's chief victims. While it supports the EU-led peace process, the US criticizes the current peace plan - which would turn Bosnia-Herzegovina into a federation of three ethnically based republics - for rewarding the aggressors and punishing the victims.
``This war is not over yet; there is still no agreement in the international community on a solution,'' Mr. Giscard d'Estaing says. Still, he says, NATO's ultimatum will give ``new life'' to Bosnia's ``safe havens'' designated by the UN. ``As of now, the international community is engaged and would be required to intervene.''