PARIS — Paris. -- Part of Serbian national mythology is that Serbs are invincible in battle but always lose their wars. This again is happening. It is a problem of overreaching.
Last Monday's shelling of Sarajevo's old city was probably meant by the Bosnian Serbs to subvert the peace proposals Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke brought to Europe, but it proved the act of bloody hubris which was the ultimate overreaching. It at last brought NATO into the war to defend the ''safe areas'' in Bosnia which the U.N. had proclaimed but had mostly, and shamefully, abandoned.
It reinforced Slobodan Milosevic, the person chiefly responsible for launching this war and for the atrocities which have followed, in his new incarnation as peacemaker -- the only ''reasonable'' man in Serbia, with whom the West must deal; and President Milosevic wants peace for Serbia, whatever the consequences for the Bosnian Serbs and their dispensable leaders.
The Bosnian Serbs' crime on Monday made a peace settlement more likely than ever before by rendering the Bosnian Serb case utterly indefensible, even to those disposed to defend it. It is impossible to deal with the Bosnian Serbs' case on its merits, because the barbarous methods the Serbs have employed have extinguished sympathy for their position. How can they have been so stupid?
It is not that there is no case for the Serbs. It was not unreasonable for Serbs to object to national borders arbitrarily set by Tito at the end of World War II, or to wish not to live in an independent Croatia which had treated Serbs atrociously during the war and whose leader in 1991, Franjo Tudjman, offered them no concessions, or in a newly independent Bosnia with a Muslim majority, despite the efforts of the new Bosnian government to treat its citizens impartially.
The Serbs themselves have made it impossible to respond to their legitimate concerns and demands. Rather than propose their case rationally, and argue it before the international community, they chose the course of demagogy, grotesque demands for an inflated Greater Serbia, the deliberate fostering of ethnic hatred, and military aggression, terrorism and ethnic cleansing.
They then complained that there was an international conspiracy against them. There was no conspiracy. In 1991 international sympathy was rather more disposed toward Serbia -- ally of the democracies in two world wars -- than to Croatia, which had earned a vile reputation as a fascist puppet state in the war. The multi-ethnic Bosnian community, and the Bosnian Muslims themselves, were little known outside Yugoslavia.
The Serbs created not a conspiracy against themselves but an alliance of individuals and governments who regarded their actions in Croatia, and then in invading Bosnia, purging and terrorizing the populations they overran, as criminal. Their subsequent policy of bombarding cities and refugees, humanitarian convoys and U.N. peacekeepers, in reprisal for any military action against them, solidified the horror with which they were regarded abroad.
The reports of the U.N.'s former special reporter on humanitarian issues, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, repeatedly have demonstrated that while no shortage exists of Croatian and Bosnian atrocities in the course of this war, the Serb leaders have placed Serbia in a class by itself. Last Monday's unprovoked attack on Sarajevo civilians was entirely in character with the Serbs' previous conduct, as were the apparent mass executions earlier in the summer of military-age Bosnian men from Srebrenica, after that city fell.
A great many people, including myself, felt a justified relief, and even vengeful pleasure, last Tuesday, when NATO and U.N. forces at last responded to the Bosnian Serbs' atrocities and provocations. In doing so we ignored the truth which the novelist Albert Camus expressed in saying that ''vanquishing a man is as bitter as being vanquished.'' Inhumanity must be fought and vanquished, but doing so may also corrupt. Causes are always imperfect. When causes are taken as perfect, fanaticism sets in.
The essential crime of the Serbs during the last four years of war, and in the earlier years during which their instigation of ethnic hatred prepared the war, is fanaticism. The atrocities followed and were rationalized by fanaticism. Fanaticism, not Serbia, is the enemy in the former Yugoslavia.
Fanaticism is responsible for having created a lesser Serbia rather than a Greater Serbia: a pariah nation, crowded with Serb refugees from Croatia and Bosnia -- driven from their homes after driving others from theirs.
The Slobodan Milosevic who promised glory and greatness to the Serbs, at the expense of their fellow Yugoslavs, has betrayed them all and now scrambles to save himself from the conflicts and divisions his actions have created inside Serbia. The situations in Montenegro, Kosovo and Vojvodina now are worse than ever, with the arrival of the Krajina refugees -- and there are more to come, from Bosnia.
The real lesson is not that Serbs destroy their own victories, but the Biblical one that he who takes to the sword will perish by it.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.