WHEN the French do something daring, at least they do it right! French President Francois Mitterrand traveled into the serpent's mouth of stricken Sarajevo, giving us the example of a grand gesture in an ambivalent world, and also showing he knew history.
He made that dangerous trip on June 28, you see, which is the exact date in 1914, 78 years ago, when a fanatic Bosnian Serb assassinated the Hapsburg heir apparent, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, thus effectively beginning the havoc of World War I.
And what a difference between President Mitterrand's daring trip -- landing in Sarajevo, actually going into the bombarded city and symbolically identifying himself with the suffering of its innocent people -- and the cowardly self-righteousness of the rest of the West toward the destruction of Yugoslavia.
Oh, until now, the excuses have sounded good, or at least all right, or at the very least, prudent. It is palpably crazy to get involved in these murderous ethnic conflicts. Europe doesn't have the structures and institutions to do so, and the United States is in an election year.
What, after all, the cynics ask, did the drama-prone Mitterrand accomplish, besides risking his life? Isn't it acts like these that will get the entire West stuck in an endless quagmire (the word American and European diplomats use constantly about Yugoslavia) in one of those new "Where?" states of the world like Bosnia, whose second name (Hercegovina, Herzogovina . . . ) is basically unpronounceable?
To be fair to those skeptics, the Yugoslav situation does have a number of differences, some of which perhaps ameliorate a bit the onus of letting 300,000 people starve to death while we stand by shifting our feet.
The breakup of Yugoslavia was not an intelligence failure. (I was told by American diplomats in Belgrade three years ago that this was going to happen.) The situation comes not from a lack of democracy, but from too much. (It was democratic elections that threw up to leadership the dregs of the country.) And we are seeing in the fight to dismember Yugoslavia a situation of folk rights (the "Great Serb nation") against the human rights that characterize industrialized democracies today.
Indeed, when those industrialized nations of the G-7 meet in Munich this month -- President Bush will of course be there -- that meeting will be not worlds, but planets, away from Sarajevo. If this G-7 summit shows anything, it will show that the glue holding the industrial world together is no longer politics and no longer security cooperation, but international economics. The G-7 summits are now, as economist Robert D. Hormats puts it, the "Economic Security Council of the world, more representative now than the United Nations."
To go from those heights of new international thinking to the hills around Sarajevo -- where the lumpen triggermen of the Serb militias, usually drunk and always out of control, rain terror down on innocent people -- is to plunge from the 21st century to the 13th.
But is that then a reason to do nothing, as everybody has been so busy doing? Or is it, to the contrary, a reason to show the people of Sarajevo that the modern world will not let the ancient world triumph?
One must note, of course, that as of this very writing, 1,000 Canadian troops are said to be moving to open a land corridor from the Adriatic Sea to Sarajevo, and American Marines reportedly are standing by to protect them. So the policies are changing somewhat. But the remaining problem is that both the American and the European governments are saying these troops will be only for "humanitarian" actions -- to provide food for the starving.
All to the good, but it will come to naught if the vicious militias atop those hills around Sarajevo are not first taken out. In short, it is too late for hesitant, almost apologetic "humanitarian aid."
If the West is serious, it will have to take out those militiamen by air and make it clear to the erratic and brutal regime in Belgrade that such actions as it engages in are simply not acceptable to the "civilized" world just next door.
That point has not yet been driven home, although President Mitterrand's gallant odyssey certainly marks a turnaround. He seemed to understand as our own Independence Day approached that, yes, independence and self-determination are far more complicated things in today's world than they have been, but the cruelty of humans to humans is not really complicated at all and must be eternally fought.
Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.