IT seems a long time since last November, when State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said, ''The United States' position is that indicted war criminals should not be in command positions,'' and that it would be ''inconceivable'' for Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic, implicated in the deaths of 18,000 people in Sarajevo and Srebrenica, to remain in positions of authority.
After Karadzic passed unhindered through four NATO checkpoints, a NATO commander, Canadian Brig. Gen. Bruce Jeffries, said he would not let the ''parallel'' issue of war crimes interfere with NATO's ''primary'' mission of peacekeeping. At that point it seemed as though the provision of the Dayton accord - making the pursuit of war criminals an integral part of the restoration of peace - was about to break down. Implementation Force commanders appeared concerned not only about ''mission creep,'' but about the Bosnian Serbs' breaking off contact with NATO headquarters in retaliation for the arrest by the Bosnian government of two Bosnian Serb officers suspected of war crimes.
Then, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, a master mechanic, flew in to perform an emergency repair job. The two officers were flown off in a NATO plane to be delivered to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. New ''rules of the road'' specified that only The Hague tribunal, not the Bosnian government, could identify suspects. The role of the NATO forces, authorized to arrest but not obliged to pursue suspects, remained ambiguous. Thus Mr. Holbrooke, about to retire, got the Dayton peace process shakily back on track, to the relief of the Clinton administration, which had feared another breakdown on top of Northern Ireland.
But accused war criminal General Mladic still struts around as the unchallenged military power figure among Bosnian Serbs. In Serbia itself, most people believe that ethnic cleansing is a myth, and their news media do not tell them otherwise.
It is not like after World War II, when the victors made the defeated Germans and Japanese confront their atrocities. In former Yugoslavia, there was no victory or defeat to make possible a real pursuit of war crimes.
The Clinton administration has found itself unable to stand up vigorously for human rights in China, or Chechnya, or Burundi. But it singled out former Yugoslavia as a place where its power was great enough, and the devastated people dependent enough, that it could set an example of international justice and respect for human life.
But, make no mistake about it, the war criminals are still in charge, and they are exacting their price for keeping the Dayton peace process afloat. And this shining hope of one victory for human rights is clouded in ambiguity.