VIENNA — NATO airstrikes against the Serbs around the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, would still epitomize the grave consequences of the West's ill-begotten policy toward a war that is now on the threshold of a third year.
Western blindness has been twofold: first, the hasty acquiescence toward the breakup of Yugoslavia; and second, the even graver failure to halt Serb aggression against an internationally recognized independent state at its outset.
Whether anything still can be saved from the wreckage depends now on the West finally taking action in place of what Lady Margaret Thatcher called the ``soft words and empty threats'' of past Yugoslav policy.
The former British leader's comments, in an American television interview, followed a gruesome mortar attack that killed 68 persons in a Sarajevo market on Feb. 5, the city's worst carnage of the war. (United Nations observers say they are unsure whether Serb gunners are responsible for the attack.)
Early on in the conflict, Lady Thatcher suggested armed intervention against Serb aggression. If Britain and France had taken the lead, she said, the slaughter could have been stopped.
The Bosnians relished her recounting of Winston Churchill's wartime appeal to President Roosevelt: ``Give us the tools and we'll finish the job.'' She noted that Roosevelt, in his response, did not say, ``That'll prolong the war,'' as the West has so often replied to similar pleas from Muslim-led Bosnia-Herzegovina.
As it is, Sarajevo is dangerously close to collapse unless the world acts resolutely. And so is Belgrade, financially.
Rump Yugoslavia is at the very brink with five-figure inflation, and its people are at the mercy of an unbelievable black market and an average monthly wage of $6.
A longtime Serb acquaintance wrote in a letter: ``You cannot imagine what the Belgrade you knew so well has become.... Shops are virtually empty; even bread is not available every day. At the banks, the usual reply is `no money.' ''
``We have become sheep,'' wrote another, referring to recent polls that said more than 50 percent of Serbs still approve the fantasy of a ``Greater Serbia,'' despite the hardships en route.
Muslim resolve to salvage as much as possible of the once proudly multiethnic Bosnian republic is understandable. But no end to the war on terms it might accept can be in sight without radically changed attitudes of Western mediators and the abandonment of peace formulas that favor the aggressor.
The record after two years of 200,000 deaths and savage ``ethnic cleansing'' is not encouraging. Western vacillation has been in the air right from the start, when Bosnia declared its independence in late 1991. Through 1992, the Western Europeans talked of ``military means'' to protect aid convoys to beleaguered Muslim enclaves. Later airstrikes were threatened. In neither case did action follow. A subsequent Western summit threatened trials for war crimes, even for Serb leaders, but the likelihood of such trials is remote.
In June last year, the European Community (now called the European Union) reiterated the key passage of the Helsinki Declaration of 1975 on nonrecognition of border changes and territory acquired by force. No more has been heard of that since, nor of the distinction between the aggressor (Serbia) and the victim (Bosnia).
After its initial reactions to the Sarajevo market attack, will the West now look for a peace that forestalls further conquest and compells the aggressor to disgorge gains?
Will the UN Security Council and NATO finally back words with deeds to halt the ``strangulation'' of Sarajevo, and after, that get peace talks back to international law?
Will more Serbs be brought to realize their own future rests also on peace? The next weeks will show.