A TRAGIC accident on a rain-soaked Bosnian mountain track has done more than take the lives of three top US officials. It has also robbed American diplomacy of dedication, memory, and momentum at a critical moment in the history of the Balkans war.
Washington must now cobble together a new negotiating team at a time when developments in the military situation have opened fresh opportunities for peace in the former Yugoslavia. In the halls of the State Department, the Pentagon, and the National Security Council, the wreck on Mt. Igman is thus perhaps seen as both a personal and professional calamity.
"It's certainly going to make it more difficult to carry on our diplomacy", said State Department spokesman David Johnson at a weekend briefing on the loss.
A somber President Clinton took a break from his vacation to vow that the diplomat's deaths would not halt continuing efforts to find a peaceful solution to the complicated Balkans fighting. "I would think that the thing they would most want us to do is press ahead," Mr. Clinton said.
The US diplomats who died when their armored vehicle slid off a softened shoulder into a ravine - Robert C. Frasure, who was both a deputy assistant secretary of State and Clinton's special envoy to the Balkans; Joseph J. Kruzel, deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO affairs; and Air Force Col. Samuel Nelson Drew, a National Security Council aide - were the mid-level idea people who produced the basic outline of US policy.
The three were driving into Sarajevo along the torturous Mt. Igman road to present a new peace plan to Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic. The leaders of the delegation, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke and Lt. Gen. Wesley Clark of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, traveled in a separate car and were unhurt.
As of this writing, the fatal wreck appeared to be an accident. If any of the warring sides in Bosnia are shown to have planned or caused the tragedy in any way, it would surely have even larger implications for US policy in the area.
The accident occurred at a time when the peace process was developing new momentum. Croatia's success in retaking the Serb-held area of Krajina, plus finger-pointing rifts now developing in the Bosnian Serb leadership, have resulted in new opportunity to end the fighting, in the view of US officials.
The newest US peace plan was in large measure produced by Frasure. It differs from previous plans in that it would award Bosnian Serbs a more compact and viable territory than previous proposals. There are reports that the plan also may call for swapping the isolated, government-held enclave of Gorazde for Serb-held territory near Sarajevo, creating a more compact and defensible Bosnian state.
The abandonment of Gorazde is an idea that the Bosnian government has vehemently rejected in the past. The shaken US diplomatic team met with President Izetbegovic after their convoy's accident, but by all accounts the meeting was nothing but a formality in the wake of the accident. A resumption of US efforts to push a settlement on the reluctant Bosnian government will now await a restructuring of its diplomatic team - an effort that could take a week or more.
Meanwhile, further reports of atrocities in the Balkans have produced renewed calls in the US for a lifting of the UN arms embargo on the region, and a withdrawal of UN forces.
Last week, a Monitor reporter found extensive evidence of mass executions of Muslims in areas of Bosnia newly captured by Bosnian Serbs. UN officials reported similar evidence of killing of Serb prisoners in areas newly captured by Croatian forces.