Avoiding Munichs

AS the world forgotten the lesson of Munich?

In Bosnia, Russia, the West Bank, Vietnam, Burma, and Nigeria this week the old debate over when to tough it out with toughs and when to compromise is as deadly serious as it has been in decades.

The majority of people today weren't yet born when Britain's Neville Chamberlain and leaders of France and Italy met with Hitler in 1938 and allowed him to swallow a chunk of Czechoslovakia in order to buy ''peace with honor.'' So it may be useful to recall that the Munich agreement involved annexing lands where ethnic Germans lived and expelling Czechs (early ethnic cleansing). Six months later Hitler took the rest of Czechoslovakia.

Today's leaders formed in that era (Sen. Bob Dole, very much in power, and Margaret Thatcher, out of power but not out of voice) learned its lesson. They both demand that Bosnian Muslims, victims of aggression, be allowed arms to defend themselves. We agree. Either NATO nations, in support of UN buffer troops, must take much tougher actions against Serb slice-and-swallow annexation or Muslims should be allowed heavy arms.

That said, it should be pointed out that it's possible to learn the lessons of Munich too well. And avoiding Munichs is not some simple how-to formula. The Vietnam War may have gone on for nearly 30 years because both Ho Chi Minh and heirs, and French and American leaders, were determined to avoid appeasement.

Cyprus presents another case history. Its Greek and Turkish communities lived in relative peace until, like their Orthodox and Muslim counterparts in Bosnia, they were stirred to clash. Even after a Turkish invasion force arrived, UN supervision prevented a final military showdown. Not letting the two sides fight it out has been the wiser course in terms of lives and money.

In Burma, the person who may know best, just-freed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, is recommending dialogue rather than fighting with her military oppressors. In Chechnya, Moscow tried force but appears to be settling for compromise. In Nigeria compromise seems unlikely because a military junta is intent on obliterating its opponents. Israel and the Palestinians must keep moving toward their scheduled compromise or intransigents on both sides (some favoring ethnic cleansing) will derail the peace plan.

From such varied case histories one conclusion can be drawn: UN peacekeeping works when both sides are exhausted or satisfied and want a face-saving referee. If one side is determined to prevail, only an equally determined alliance can put teeth into an effort to deny a new Munich.

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