Berlin -- If you've ever wondered why the war in Bosnia seems as if it will never end, here's a short but illuminating quiz:
Question One. When did international mediators first warn the Bosnian Serbs that "time is running out" for peace negotiations?
Two years and a month ago. The latest such warning came from the French during the past two weeks. For some reason the Serbs didn't take it seriously.
Question Two. When did the news media report that a fierce Serbian attack was "tightening a noose around" the Muslim enclave of Bihac?
Two and a half years ago. And the noose is still being tightened.
Those answers sum up the track record of recurring failure for Western policy in Bosnia. From Sarajevo to Srebrenica to Gorazde to Bihac, with other grisly stops in between, the cycle of the war has become as maddeningly predictable as that of a washing machine that won't shut off.
The Bosnian Serbs agitate, usually by intensifying an attack on some surrounded Muslim city; the West spins in a confusion of bold threats and timid action. After a few weeks of attention the world moves on, and Bosnia is cleansed out of the headlines until the Serbs start the process over.
nTC Along the way a discouraging corollary has emerged among analysts and students of the war. It goes like this: No actions by the Western powers -- whether undertaken through the United Nations or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization -- will ever stop the war except those no one will ever be willing to undertake.
In other words, the price of repairing this broken machine called Bosnia is too high, allowing only for the sort of low-budget diplomatic tinkering that occasionally has made matters worse, either by antagonizing the Serbs or giving false encouragement to the underdog Muslims.
The only hopeful note within this bleak admission of impotence has always been that the West might at least be able to keep the war from spreading, if only by focusing the region's aggressions on the beleaguered people of Bosnia.
As one Western diplomat from the region explained recently, "Other than the aid programs . . . the only real hope now is containment. We'll settle for an implosion if that's what it takes to prevent an explosion."
But recent developments in Croatia have made even that hope seem shaky. Croatian President Franjo Tudjman has asked U.N. peacekeeping troops to leave his country once their latest mandate expires March 31. That would mean there would no longer be a neutral buffer along the fissure where the whole mess in the former Yugoslavia first erupted in 1991, a year before the fighting ever moved into Bosnia.
A resumption of fighting there -- in Croatia's Serbian-controlled Krajina region -- would in effect put the war right back where it started, with all its heightened potential for spreading to neighboring states such as Macedonia and the Serbian province of Kosovo.
This frightening possibility has left the world to ponder the failure of Western resolve in stopping the conflict early on, when the military action was greatest, when charges of atrocities were the most vivid, and when much of the territory now controlled by the Serbs was still up for grabs.
Europe's failure to act has been blamed on everything from post-Cold War grogginess to an underestimation of ethnic hatred and Serbian military capability. But at its heart, according to some analysts, is that Europe's strongest nation is also its weakest link when it comes to military resolve.
That would be Germany, armed with the most powerful military force in Europe, yet constrained by its own constitution from sending its army abroad except in special cases, and on foreign policy still tied in knots by angst over its World War II misdeeds.
The irony is that Germany helped kick the war into motion in the former Yugoslavia by momentarily forgetting World War II history. That happened when Germany hastened to recognize the sovereignty of Croatia after Croatian nationalists broke away from the Serb-dominated Yugoslav federation.
Germany's action set off a panic among the Serbian majority of Croatian's Krajina region, who during World War II had been the victims of genocide by an alliance of the Nazi army and Croatian nationalist "Ustasha" movement.
Before long the fear had turned to gunfire. The war had begun, and a year later the Serbs carried the fighting across the border into the other new breakaway nation of Bosnia.
But after having helped get the fighting under way, Germany felt powerless to stop it. One reason was the so-called "Kohl Doctrine," a dictum of Chancellor Helmut Kohl that no German soldiers shall ever go anywhere the Wehrmacht went during World War II. That rules out the former Yugoslavia, not to mention the rest of Europe.
Some critics within Germany have argued that it was far worse to allow armed aggression to go unchecked than to send troops in order to stop it.