Paul Greenberg

"War has started." That was the word from Vladimir Putin, currently prime minister and informally the latest Tsar of the new-old Russia, who at the time was speaking directly from the Genocide Olympics at Beijing, that grand festival of world peace and brotherhood. The ironies abound.

Ah, yes, just what the world needs: another war. And where has this one started? In the Caucasus between ever imperial Russia and a much smaller but ever feisty Georgia, which broke away from the old Soviet Union when it disunited.

The war is over South Ossetia, a province that in turn broke away from Georgia - and has been struggling for independence or some form thereof ever since. (North Ossetia remained part of Russia, South Ossetia did so only informally.) To many of us, Ossetia is a name about as familiar as Bosnia was in 1914 - before an Austrian grand duke was assassinated while touring its capital, Sarajevo. And tension began to mount.

At first that, too, was going to be just a localized conflict, one between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Serbia. The trouble was going to be ironed out by Europe's great powers in their collective wisdom. Each in turn moved to arbitrate, negotiate, fulminate and generally temporize before, alas, they mobilized. Result: an almost accidental world war, the first of two that made the last century man's bloodiest.

Madness, madness.

The moral of the awful story: Temporizing can be dangerous to the world's health. Fail to resolve a crisis soon, and the world could wind up fighting at length.

Now it's the world's powers - NATO, Washington, the European Union - that are moving to arbitrate, negotiate, take sides and generally dawdle while the bombs burst. Meanwhile, casualties mount, refugees flee, bodies litter the streets, and the communiques give conflicting versions of who was to blame.

Georgia begins to realize it has overplayed its hand by moving to regain its restive province. The Russians see their chance, if not to seize Georgia, then to overthrow its government. The Russians go marching through Georgia; the Georgians appeal to Washington for help. All concerned grow more belligerent. This Is Not Good.

Something needs to be done. Right Now. Like ensuring a cease-fire and getting the warring powers and representatives of those caught in the middle to start talking instead of fighting. Then a settlement might be worked out, as eventually it was in the Balkans when the Serbs, Bosnians, Kosovars, NATO and the Americans found themselves at war.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.