Albania and Zaire are as far apart as the alphabet suggests but they both hold a warning for those who will not see their similarity.
Both are failed states, one tiny, the other huge. The leaders, Sali Berisha of Albania and Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, served as agents of influence for outside powers until circumstances diminished their usefulness. Those powers, mostly European but inevitably also American, were unconscious of or uninterested in their clients' decline. Then, suddenly, the implications of collapse called for remedy, and the spectators didn't know what to do.
The gross example is Zaire. Heartbreaking human misery cries out for help. The United Nations and volunteer organizations gladly provide what they can. Yet, in a time of budgetary restraint, facing multiple demands on their generosity, governments feel the drag of donor fatigue and the political fear of new, expensive commitments.
In the previous 40 years, that was not a problem. Zaire, born in 1960 as the Republic of the Congo, was a major battlefield of the cold war. Nikita Khrushchev's Soviet Union sought a firm foothold in Africa by filling the vacuum left by Belgium, the departing colonial power. Zaire, as big as the United States east of the Mississippi (or the whole of Western Europe), lies in the heart of the continent, bordering on nine countries. The strategic fallout was clear. President Dwight Eisenhower raised a finger. And then President John F. Kennedy, confronting hints of "volunteers" in the Congo, said explicitly that the US would oppose any government's unilateral intervention.
Actually, the danger was never that great. In the tumultuous independence summer of 1960, the US found an effective ally at the top. Col. Joseph Desir Mobutu, who was army chief of staff after a meteoric rise from his earlier rank of sergeant-clerk in the Belgian colonial force, expelled the hundreds of Soviet and Soviet-bloc "technicians" who had swarmed in. He was reportedly in the pay of the CIA. He and the army remained the effective power behind the scenes until he officially took over the state in 1965. To acquire legitimacy, he Africanized himself as Mobutu Sese Seko and the Congo as Zaire (from "big water"). And he robbed that rich country blind. His rhetoric was violent, anti-colonial, but he maintained a cozy relationship with France and remained a valuable asset for the US, which was still fighting the cold war in Angola next door.
Those days are gone. Mobutu is now being spat out and a new force, the product of ethnic upheaval in the region, is trying to take his place. The rebel leader, Laurent Kabila, sounds better than Mobutu, but he's an unknown quantity. That wouldn't matter if it were the dark side of the moon, but Zaire, which Mr. Kabila again calls the Republic of the Congo, is by virtue of its mass a factor in stabilizing or disrupting the continent. It lies in a slash of conflict that burns across Africa from Sudan in the northeast to Angola in the southwest.
The political and material importance of the outcome needs no explanation. However, if the US and the European Union have had any scheme to help direct events, it is not apparent.
The same holds for the continuing nightmare in the Balkans. In Albania, the tragedy of Yugoslavia is being repeated as farce. The Europeans are dithering there as they did over Croatia and Bosnia in 1991 and '92. The question is whether to intervene against the anarchy that gripped the country and, if so, how.
This time, they will not have the UN as figleaf and scapegoat. Nor is the US likely again to bail them out. As long as the Yugoslav war was in full swing, Washington and the rest badly wanted Albanians quiet. Berisha, a communist in democrat's clothing, filled the bill. After he came to power in 1992 he not only kept his country in hand but also used his influence to restrain the angry Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia.
With 600 American soldiers in a UN preventive force on the Kosovo-Macedonian border, this was worth something. Washington responded not only with money but also with a military cooperation agreement - the first with a former communist state. Berisha's increasingly dictatorial rule - even his openly stealing the national election a year ago - was calmly overlooked. But the heat is off the Balkans for the moment, and Berisha can be allowed to sink or swim.
All of which leaves some questions. How to deal with so-called imploded states? Leave them to burn themselves out, like Afghanistan and Somalia, with the blood and destruction that it involves? If not, what are admissible, realistic forms and degrees of intervention? These issues are neither hypothetical nor remote.
Bosnia is now at a low level of violence, but all signs point to failure of the peace process and resumption of the conflict when the Stabilization Force leaves next year. What then?
* Richard Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.