THE crash of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown's plane in the Balkans could be a tragic blow to both the US government and American business.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the crash will deal a setback to international efforts to reconstruct Bosnia - an effort deemed crucial to ensuring the success of the current Bosnia peace pact.
While at time of writing the extent of the tragedy wasn't known, Mr. Brown's plane was reported to have gone down near the Croatian city of Dubrovnik. Initial indications were that bad weather, not anti-aircraft fire, was the cause of the crash.
Brown has been one of the most energetic and able of Clinton Cabinet members - albeit one whose business activities have attracted much criticism in the past.
Nearly a dozen US business executives were accompanying Brown on his first trip to Bosnia since the Dayton peace accord was signed last November. The passenger list hadn't been released at press time. Croatian sources said the US Air Force plane that was carrying Brown and his delegation crashed as it was preparing to land at Cilipi airport, about 10 miles south of Dubrovnik. They said bad weather was believed the cause. Local search-and-rescue units immediately launched a recovery operation.
Brown and his delegation were to hold talks in Dubrovnik on Wednesday evening with Croatian Prime Minister Zlatko Matesa on opportunities for US investment in Croatia. Brown and Mr. Matesa, who as prime minister oversees fiscal policy, were also to sign a number of bilateral economic agreements. Brown was to fly to the Croatian capital of Zagreb today for a meeting with President Franjo Tudjman.
Dubrovnik, one of Europe's best preserved medieval fortress cities, was apparently selected for the meeting because it is Croatia's most famous tourist attraction. One goal of Brown's mission was tourism promotion.
Brown had taken his delegation to Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina to look into possibilities for US investment and tourism as part of an international effort to rebuild the war-shattered economies of the two former Yugoslav republics.
Both suffered billions of dollars of devastation to factories, infrastructure, and farming in conflicts that erupted when rebel ethnic Serbs rebelled against their secessions from former Yugoslavia. The war in Bosnia began in April 1992 and was stilled by the US-brokered Dayton peace accords. The accords also committed Croatia's rebel Serbs to the return of the last small swath of territory they control. Croatia last year recovered by military force most of the areas captured by the rebel Serbs in 1991.
One of the uncertainties is how much the crash may setback the Bosnian reconstruction effort. While the US has pledged to participate, the bulk of the effort was to be carried by Washington's European allies.
In addition to fears of future instability, foreign investors have expressed a reluctance to invest in Croatia or Bosnia pending further transformation of their former socialist-style economies. Though both allow private ownership and outside investment, many experts say they have not gone far enough or fast enough to restrict the state's role in the economy. Foreign investors and diplomats have also complained of deep-rooted corruption.
Brown met Friday with business leaders and representatives of nongovernmental organizations working on the effort to reconstruct war-torn Bosnia.
"He demonstrated the commitment the United States has in bringing private investment and private capital to rebuild the domestic economy. Without both, reconstruction won't happen," says a senior official of a leading nongovernmental group working in Bosnia.
In Washington, Brown has been a forceful presence. As one of the most activist Commerce secretaries in history, he has emphasized job creation in particular. He has aggressively sold US goods and services overseas. During his tenure, the department has developed and practiced the so-called "big emerging market" strategy designed to penetrate the world's most promising commercial areas.
With CEOs from major US corporations in tow, Brown has helped to rack up billions of dollars in deals on his business missions to Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. He has tried to avoid the often troubling link between diplomacy and commerce by leaving China's human-rights abuses to the State Department and military concerns to the Pentagon, as he moved in on the Asian giant's trillion-dollar market.
"Ron has done the best job of any Secretary of Commerce in my memory," says Clayton Yeutter, a former US trade representative. "No one has been a stronger advocate for American export opportunities around the world."
He says Brown has given the department a presence in Washington it has rarely had in the past just by the force of his own personality.
The type of plane carrying Brown and his delegation has recently attracted suspicion because of a pair of unexplained accidents related to rudder problems.