Why America's seat at the UN is still empty

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BETWEEN THE United Nations and the United States there is nothing but grief. The feud festers over unpaid US dues, tensions have mounted over policy towards Iraq and now, just as President Bill Clinton prepares to address the General Assembly on Monday, there is this: Washington has no proper ambassador here.

A week ago, Bill Richardson left the post to become Energy Secretary in the Clinton cabinet. His successor is Richard Holbrooke, who achieved diplomatic celebrity in 1995 by brokering the Dayton Accord to end the war in Bosnia. But Mr Holbrooke's confirmation by the US Senate has faltered because of a somewhat mysterious ethics investigation.

Inquiries into allegations of misconduct by Mr Holbrooke byboth the Justice and State departments meant that the White House last week missed a deadline for submitting his nomination to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, headed by the irascible Senator Jesse Helms. With Congress due to go into recess on 9 October, there is no chance Mr Holbrooke will be confirmed before next year.

The source of it all was an unsigned, poison-pen letter sent to the State Department in July. Its author, presumed to be an old foe, drew attention to Mr Holbrooke's link with a former US Ambassador to Switzerland, Larry Lawrence, who has since died.

This week, lawyers for Mr Holbrooke said he had made "an honest mistake" by failing to disclose that, after returning from his job as ambassador to Germany in 1994, he lived rent-free in an apartment belonging to Mr Lawrence in Washington. It should have been listed as a "gift" valued at $12,000.

Mr Holbrooke, however, has said nothing about other claims in the letter - that he used Mr Lawrence to land a lucrative job with Credit Suisse First Boston, the investment bank, when he left government service in 1996 and that, once at the bank, he maintained improper contact with US diplomats.

If Mr Holbrooke has enemies - many consider him to be as brusque as he is brilliant - he also has many friends who dismiss the allegations. Most diplomats believe he will overcome the charges. This week, President Clinton reaffirmed his choice, saying his friend was the victim of "inertia in Congress".

That, however, may not have helped Mr Holbrooke, whose greater ambition has long been to serve as Secretary of State.

Meanwhile, there is an awkward hiatus in US representation in the UN as the Iraq crisis threatens to erupt again and other burning issues include developments in North Korea and Russia. For now, America's seat on the Security Council is occupied by one of Richardson's deputies, Peter Burleigh.