Consider that had we all been paying attention 18 months ago to the nasty spat that was heating up between Kuwait and Iraq, timely action might have been taken to mediate the dispute and the whole current crisis probably would have been avoided. You can find no more dramatic a demonstration of the costs of inadequate intelligence, bureaucratic inattentiveness or policy blindness, whatever it was. For the evident fact is that -- much as we Americans like to think we are playing on a grand stage -- it is not History that is on the march in the Gulf but simply bad judgment, and a part of it is ours. This was a preventable war.

Now consider the report by The New York Times's David Binder, a veteran Balkan hand, that the CIA is predicting that in 18 months the fractious federation that is Yugoslavia may come apart and erupt into civil war.

Did the CIA blow Kuwait? Is it trying to protect itself against the prospect of a big explosion, and further agency embarrassment, in seething Yugoslavia? No matter. You do not have to believe that the Balkans could again blow up all of Europe to anticipate the chaos and violence that could attend the splitting of Yugoslavia. This time, for the next crisis, we should be alert.

It is a serious matter when the United States comes to a view that a friendly sovereign state may soon disappear. In the general marketplace it is by now a familiar judgment, but political chatter and newspaper talk are one thing and a formal verdict by a great power's intelligence service another. The official murmuring of the very possibility can be regarded as an offensive act, a no-confidence gesture, a part of a campaign of "destabilization." None of this appears true in this case. But Yugoslavs may well fear that a dispassionate intelligence estimate can all too easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The temptation is strong to take up a pose of anxious concern and let it go at that. It's not our problem; it's their problem, and if they're determined to be so bloody-minded, we Americans should simply leave it to the Europeans to do what they can, if anything. This fits ill with the American record: after World War I Woodrow Wilson hatched Yugoslavia, and after World War II successive American presidents sustained it and built it into the wall of containment of Soviet power. Still, you could make an unsentimental case that with the end of the Cold War Yugoslavia is expendable, or at least not so much worth worrying about as it was before.

Yugoslavia is, from an ethnic point of view, a hard case. We Americans, drawing from our own relatively brief, isolated, continental experience, are partial to federalism. It's worked for us, and without reflecting too much about it we tend to think that disparate groups in very different populations should be able to find a cooperative way. At the same time, being ethnically derived, we have a natural sympathy for other people's ethnic strivings, particularly these days in the Soviet Union, where a strong centralizing power stuffed ethnics into a unitary state, but in Yugoslavia too.

In short, our society and, true to it, our government send out conflicting signals to the Yugoslavs: make the federation work and keep the ethnics content. The pluralism we urge reinforces federation; the democracy we urge nourishes ethnic self-determination and separatism. Neither our example nor our counsel is very relevant.

Enter waddling the odd duck called -- speak out the letters -- CSCE. This sturdy, proven human-rights bureau, uniting all the Europeans, the Soviets and us, is now being groomed for heavier duty as the brand-new expanded Europe's premier post-Cold War political forum. It's just been instructed to conduct lots of dialogue and to set up a "crisis prevention center" and in both ways to deal presumably with problems like Yugoslavia. Nothing's been done yet, but there is much agitation and a certain hope.

Yugoslavs look inward and get suspicious about each other; too often when they look outward, nobody is paying attention, and their suspicions darken. The new Europe, including the United States, should draw all the Yugoslavs into a setting where they have access to outsiders and must constantly explain themselves. Then, what started out as, one hopes, an improving dialogue could become a kind of committee or conference in which Yugoslavs would have the support but also the discipline of the broader Europe as they address their restive -- no, explosive -- affairs. The possibilities are dazzling, risk-laden and urgent.