If there is one lesson we should have learned from the history of the past 90 years, it is that minor crises, unless promptly dealt with, almost invariably build up into major international disasters. This is not to say that such disasters are absolutely avoidable—that would be wishful thinking. But it is to say that an inclination to do nothing and to “let events take their course” simply inflates the magnitude of the subsequent catastrophe.

I write these lines with reference to what Branko Lazitch, one of France’s foremost Sovietologists who is himself of Serbian origin, has aptly called the “Third Balkan War.” The article in which he used this phrase (published in the June 1992 issue of the Paris monthly Est & Quest) provided an incisive description and analysis of something experienced by Serbian leader Slobodan Miloshevitch during a visit to the historic battlefield of Kosovo on April 24, 1987, which hit him with the force of a Damascene revelation: the explosive potential of strident, xenophobic nationalism. This discovery, I might add, had already been made, more than 60 years before, by an Austrian-born demagogue named Adolf Hitler, who decided in the early 1930’s that the “nationalism” inherent in National Socialism was a far more potent rabble-rousing force than its “socialist” ingredient, to which his chief rival in the party, Gregor Strasser, was more solidly committed.

It may sound absurd to compare two such dissimilar individuals as Hitler and Miloshevitch and the vastly different situations each had to cope with at a crucial moment in his career. But I personally believe that there are certain constants, or let us say propensities—for example, political cynicism or the gambler’s instinct—which keep recurring in the course of human history and that, furthermore, what we have been witnessing recently in the Balkans, while in no way an exact replay of past events, has provided us with one more example of the spinelessness that the pampered countries of the West so often displayed toward the Soviet Union during the “Cold War” and the phony “detente” that prolonged it.

To understand how this could happen, and how a minor crisis, when not dealt with promptly, can develop into an international disaster, let us look back to the fateful 1930’s. A key date in the turbulent history of this century was assuredly March 7, 1936. It might even be ranked in an honorable fourth or fifth place—behind June 28,19I4 (the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria); the November 7,1917, revolutionary putsch of Lenin and his Bolsheviks; and the January 30, 1933, appointment of Adolf Hitler to the chancellorship of the Germanic Reich—as one of this century’s decisive turning points. On that fateful day. Hitler, displaying the canny instinct that made him the most reckless (and for a long time the most successful) political gambler of this century, overruled the “pussyfooters” in the German general staff by ordering exactly three battalions to cross the river into the Rhineland—a sizable chunk of German territory extending like a “buffer zone” for several hundred miles along the borders of France, Luxembourg, Belgium, and Holland—which had been officially “demilitarized” by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and the Locarno Pact of 1929. While the minister of defense. General Werner von Blomberg, spent an anxious day wringing his hands at the prospect of a prompt French reaction, which would have entailed an immediate, humiliating withdrawal of German soldiery, nothing happened, and over the next day or two the number of in-marching troops was gradually increased from three to 19 battalions. Hitler had won his gamble, consolidating his grip on the Third Reich.

The question that immediately arises is what would have happened if the French Army’s chief of staff at this crucial moment had been not a spineless nonentity named Maurice Gamelin but, instead, a man of guts and character, like, let us say, Charles de Gaulle (who was then only a colonel), Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, or Alphonse Juin. Part of the answer was provided at the postwar Nuremberg Trials by Alfred Jodl (one of the planners of the Rhineland operation in 1936): “Considering the position we were in, the French covering army could have blown us to pieces.”

So much for the military certainty. But what of the political consequences? The answer, I believe, is that a number of senior German officers, still smarting from the June 30, 1934, murder by Nazi thugs of two of their leading generals (Kurt von Schleicher and Kurt von Bredow), would have decided that the time had come to get rid of that “dangerous madman” Adolf Hitler—something that would probably have plunged Germany into a civil war. Which, in view of what later happened, would almost certainly have been a godsend to Europe and the world.

My reason for thinking so is that something very similar came close to happening in September 1938, at the height of the Sudetenland crisis. As we now know, thanks to Peter Hoffmann’s masterly History of the General Resistance, J933-J945 (1977)—a book that ought to be required reading for all present-day students of political science—in early September of that year a number of Germans, who were convinced that Hitler’s announced intention of invading Czechoslovakia to “liberate” the captive German population of the Sudetenland would lead to a catastrophic war with France and Great Britain, made elaborate plans to storm the Reichschancellery, to seize and depose the Führer (some of the plotters intended to murder him on the spot), and to neutralize a number of key Gestapo and SS installations. The plot, which was to have gone into effect the day Hitler issued marching orders to his divisions, was no hastily thought-up, harebrained scheme, for the plotters included Franz Haider, the army’s chief of staff; his deputy, Lt. General Karl-Heinz von Stülpnagel; Major General Erwin von Witzleben, who headed the Third Military District (including Berlin); the commander of the 23rd Potsdam Division, Walter von Brockdorff-Ahlefeldt; Admiral Wilhelm Canaris (head of Germany’s secret services) and his fearless deputy. Colonel Hans Oster; the deputy head of the Berlin police force (Fritz-Dietlof von der Schulenburg); as well as a number of influential civilians, including the financier Hjalmar Schacht. The September 28 storming of the Reichschancellery, however, had to be cancelled at the very last moment when it was learned that Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier, yielding to Mussolini’s entreaties, had agreed to go to Munich to negotiate a “settlement” of the Sudeten-Czech crisis. As Nevile Henderson, the British ambassador in Berlin, wrote to his Foreign Office boss. Lord Halifax, on October 6, “in keeping the peace, we have saved Hitler and his regime.”

Lucius Clay, that rare bird—a general with a profound understanding of geopolitics—drew from these crucial events of the 1930’s a conclusion that, in my opinion, deserves to be called “Clay’s Law”: that an act of aggression or intended aggression, if not promptly faced and thwarted by an appropriate response, will simply encourage further acts of aggression, which may eventually require 10,20, or even 50 times as much military effort to combat as would have been necessary at the outset. This was why, in June 1948, when Stalin decided to cut the Western allies’ lifeline to Berlin on the specious grounds that a bridge on the Helmstedt-Potsdam Autobahn was in danger of “collapsing” and needed to be “repaired,” Clay, suspecting that this was a piece of Soviet bluff, tried to persuade President Truman to let him run an armored train through to West Berlin. Unfortunately, Harry Truman, who was in the thick of an election campaign (which almost everyone expected him to lose) and who, to please American public opinion, had “brought the boys home” from Europe at far too fast a pace, felt that the risks were too great and rejected Clay’s bold proposal.

General Clay never ceased to regret that decision, considering, I think rightly, that the Berlin airlift was a poor, in extremis substitute for his armored train proposal. For the airlift—undertaken, we should not forget, before NATO had been established—did not provide conclusive evidence of Uncle Sam’s military resolve. The result. Clay used to argue, was the Soviet-planned invasion of South Korea, which plunged the United States into a bloody war.

I still vividly recall the evening in the late 1970’s when, in the course of a television “talk show” here in Paris, I explained all this to Alfred Grosser, a highly intelligent professor of political science and one of France’s leading authorities on Germany. “What?” he said, visibly surprised. ‘Ton mean to say that General Clay seriously believed that if he had been allowed to run an armored train through to Berlin in 1948, there would not have been a Korean War in 1950?” “Yes,” I said, “that was General Clay’s firm conviction, and 1 know it because he told me so himself.”

Now what, the indulgent reader may be wondering, has this got to do with the dreadful, present-day mess in Yugoslavia? My answer—a great deal. For it is because a number of Western countries failed to act forcefully in the early stages of this crisis that it soon got completely out of hand, so much so indeed that the damage already done—800 mosques destroyed, to cite but one statistic—now seems beyond repair, opening psychological wounds that will take decades to heal.

Though the countries of Western Europe are primarily culpable, it must be acknowledged that the Yugoslav “mess” was fatally aggravated by serious errors committed by George Bush. The first error was the casual manner in which he put a premature end to the Allied Blitzkrieg in Iraq by preventing General Schwarzkopf and the British and French commanders from completing the rout of Saddam Hussein’s forces and seizing the port city of Basra. This error of judgment can be compared to Eisenhower’s mistake in not allowing Allied forces to cross the Elbe and enter Berlin in April 1945 (despite Churchill’s pleas), an error compounded a couple of months later by Harry Truman in ordering American forces to evacuate the Saxon heartland that had been overrun by Patton’s divisions without obtaining in exchange iron-clad guarantees concerning Allied access routes to Berlin. Basra, as anyone could see by glancing at a map, was the trump card you do not throw away if you really want to win the game and get rid of a dangerous aggressor. For if the Iraqi officer corps had been bluntly made to understand that Basra would not be returned to their country until they got rid of Saddam Hussein, they would have been forced to act. As it is, Saddam Hussein is still in power, and the United Nations seems powerless to do much about it—a lesson not lost upon another international mischief-maker, Slobodan Miloshevitch.

George Bush’s second major error was to trumpet the victory in the Gulf War as though it had opened a new chapter in human history, a “New World Order.” So much has been written in the pages of this magazine to deflate this fatuous notion that there is no need for me to belabor the point. But it has had and will continue to have a nefarious bearing on events in Yugoslavia in fostering the illusion that this was a problem the United Nations and the United Nations alone was equipped to deal with. It was a piece of naive foolishness to believe that the United Nations—an organization which (despite Chapter 7 of its charter) has been unable in 48 years to form a standing army, which is chronically bankrupt and institutionally paralyzed, and which, as Charles Krauthammer aptly put it in a Time essay last July, has “become the all-purpose ambulance service for bleeding countries”—could tackle such a major European problem. Only too often this fatuous idea has been used by European politicians—let us not talk of “statesmen,” a dying species in this age of mediocrity—as a convenient excuse for shirking their responsibilities, this time by simply dumping the irksome problem of the Third Balkan War into the “lap of the U.N.”

But Bush and the United States are not the only guilty parties. Shortly after the siege of Dubrovnik had begun, Bernard Kouchner, the founder of two French medical-aid associations—Médecins sans Frontières and Médecins du Monde—made a quick trip to the scene. On his return to Paris, as minister responsible for humanitarian affairs, he went to see President Mitterrand and urged him to send French warships to the Adriatic to break the Dubrovnik siege. But François Mitterrand, who had already distinguished himself during the Gulf crisis by doing everything he could to avert a military showdown—if Saddam Hussein had been cleverer and had accepted one of Mitterrand’s olive branches, he might even have been able to scuttle “Desert Storm” before it hit him—showed that a slinking leopard does not change its spots. He rejected Kouchner’s “risky” proposal. Instead—and it must be added that in England Prime Minister John Major and Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd were equally obtuse—he chose the far riskier course of placing thousands of French troops, armed to the teeth but with orders not to use them (the arms, not the teeth), at the disposal of the United Nations in various parts of war-torn Yugoslavia. This was the ultimate madness—but a magnificent, largely symbolic gesture intended to reassure the world that France was doing more than its “little bit,” that it was still the generous, courageous France of Victor Hugo, or for that matter—not for nothing is Monsieur Mitterrand a Socialist—the peace-loving France of Leon Blum (who, in April 1936, wrote an article praising his countrymen for their unilateral inertia during the Rhineland crisis, in the name—need I add?—of “collective security”).

I say the ultimate madness because soldiers are normally trained to fight. This is their raison d’être. They are not usually trained not to fight—any more than policemen are trained not to use their pistols, if necessary. To force them to do the opposite of what they are supposedly trained to do is to expose them to endless ridicule. It is simply a perversion of the military ethos, one more symptom of that Umwertung der Werte, of that “inversion of values” (as Nietzsche called it), which has become one of the pathetic hallmarks of our times.

What do soldiers do when they find themselves placed in such an intolerable situation? The answer is that, in the name of common sense, they ignore or exceed their crippling mandates, which is more or less what Admiral Jonathan Howe did in Somalia in ordering his U.N. troops to go after the chief troublemaker; or else, like General Philippe Morillon in Sarajevo and elsewhere, they “blow their stacks” and tear their hair in permanent frustration.

Far be it from me to claim that the French, British, and other troops sent out to “keep the peace” in various parts of Yugoslavia have achieved nothing. In some cases—that of Mostar, for example, whose Moslem inhabitants were literally being starved as well as shot to death by their Croat oppressors—the local inhabitants have clung to U.N. relief columns as a drowning man clings to a log. But the fact remains that only too often the “Do not open or return fire” instructions under which they are forced to operate have made them look like impotent sissies, confirming the impression that the “powers” they represent, and by whom they were trained and armed, are simply paper tigers.

Let me cite one example (among hundreds) that graphically illustrates this macabre truth. One day last August, Patrick de Saint-Exupery, who has been covering the Third Balkan War for the Figaro, visited the Sarajevo suburb of Gobijta Glava to check on the French soldiers of the 21st Marine Infantry Regiment. A sergeant major, who had been assigned the job of “protecting” the suburb’s 5,000 inhabitants, told him that shortly after his arrival, while he was making the rounds with some of his men, several shots were fired from a few hundred yards away, seriously wounding two little girls who were playing in the street. They were promptly rushed in an armored car to a hospital in Sarajevo. The sergeant was so enraged that he had a message sent to the Serbian snipers (well armed with telescopic rifles) saying that from now on the soldiers under his command were going to walk around in the midst of the local population and that if the sniping continued, the French would be obliged to return the fire. The Serbs immediately protested to the local U.N. headquarters, saying that they were going to shell the suburbs unless the French marines were withdrawn. Instead, the French returned the next day with armored cars, and as long as they were present, there was no more sniping.

If, as the sergeant realized, the two little girls had been so callously shot down, it was not because the Serbian snipers were sadists. What they wanted to find out was how the French soldiers on the spot were going to react. In short—and I do not believe that the comparison is too farfetched—they were behaving as Adolf Hitler did in March 1936.

There is, obviously, no easy way out of this dreadful dilemma. No one knows this better than Jean-François Deniau, one of the few French deputies for whom I feel a genuine respect. (A tireless, globe-trotting supporter of oppressed peoples, he once trekked his way over 12,000-foot mountain passes into Afghanistan and, at the age of 54, suffered a heart attack as a result.) Deniau, who was one of the first French “hawks” to urge a swift aerial take-out of the Serbian artillery batteries that were pounding Sarajevo, was also one of the first French politicians to realize into what a fatal trap his government had inadvertently walked, in the name of “international solidarity” and “humanitarian good will,” by dispatching so many French troops to “keep the peace” in Yugoslavia. Since they are not supposed to shoot back unless directly fired upon, and since they are outgunned on the ground, they have in fact become “hostages” on whom the Serbs, or for that matter the Croats, can open fire any time they choose to deter the government in Paris from taking a tough line or advocating the use of force. This might be called “deterrence in reverse”—the punishment meted out to those who began by gutlessly abandoning the cardinal principle on which NATO was founded.

The point has been forcefully made by one of France’s most brilliant “young philosophers,” Bernard-Henri Levy. The reason why NATO was for many years so successful in defending Western Europe is that it was built around the concept of deterrence. Any aggressive Soviet move across the Iron Curtain was certain to involve what John Foster Dulles once called “massive retaliation.” But, Levy points out, from the very start of the turmoil in Yugoslavia, the Western allies tacitly abandoned the philosophy of deterrence, letting Slobodan Miloshevitch know that no matter what happened, the West was not going to get involved militarily, it was not going to use the formidable weapons at its disposal. Politically, and one might even say morally, it willfully disarmed itself. Manfred Worner, who was an able West German defense minister before becoming secretary-general of NATO, has frequently made this point in talking with journalists. Almost from the beginning of the turmoil in Yugoslavia, NATO had 65,000 men capable of intervening, but, alas, “the political will to use them was lacking.”

In an article published in the weekly Le Point some months ago, Jean-François Revel reminded his readers that the Yugoslav embroglio belonged to that category of problems for which, as Bertrand de Jouvenel (in Du Pouvoir) observed, there are rickety arrangements but never real solutions. “For example, the six hundred thousand Serbs living in Croatia can neither accept Croatian domination, nor emigrate, for they are too numerous. Nor can they establish an independent state, for they are too few. By the same token, cutting up tiny Bosnia into ten even tinier portions in order to encourage peaceful relations between Serbs, Croatians, and Moslems is a cartographer’s dream, not a political solution.” But, having said this, Revel was also careful to add, quoting from a book on Yugoslavia written by the Belgian diplomat Henry Wynaendts: “‘All the organizations in the civilized world have been involved in the Yugoslav affair: the European Community, the C.S.C.E., the High Commission for Refugees, the Red Cross, the Human Rights Commission, the G7, NATO and the West European Union, the United Nations.’ All they did was aggravate the chaos. In order to solve the unsolvable, there remains, unfortunately, only force. And if force does not come from outside, it will come from the strongest on the inside.”

This will not, of course, necessarily ensure peace. Probably the contrary. In the meantime, Slobodan Miloshevitch has ruined his country economically, disgraced it morally, and started a blaze which—in accordance with “Clay’s Law”—will take more than verbal condemnations, empty threats, and hypocritical “peace plans” to extinguish.