Crowe heads list for London post: Raymond Seitz to serve out his full term

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WASHINGTON - Retired Admiral William Crowe, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a crucial convert to the Clinton campaign during last year's presidential election, has emerged as the leading candidate to take over as the next US ambassador to London, probably some time early next year, writes Rupert Cornwell.

The current Washington envoy to the Court of St James's is a career foreign service officer, Raymond Seitz. He has performed so ably in the job that the British government took the unusual step of mounting a powerful backstage lobbying campaign to prevent him falling victim to the wholesale changes in important embassies abroad which is customary upon the arrival of a new administration in Washington.

According to diplomats in Washington, the understanding that may give Admiral Crowe arguably the most coveted American diplomatic posting abroad respects the undertaking that Mr Seitz would remain in his post for a normal tour of three years.

This would expire at Easter next year.

Almost certainly the departure of Mr Seitz would still be a disappointment for the British, who credit him with soothing feathers ruffled by the Conservative government's tilt towards former president George Bush in the 1992 campaign - not least over its involvement in the notorious Clinton passport affair.

But Admiral Crowe is very far from the dilettante multi-millionaire party fund-raiser that past American presidents have frequently foisted upon their allies.

As a British official put it: 'He's clearly a credible candidate. Crowe is a serious guy, with a lot of transatlantic experience and a Nato stalwart.'

Most important, and despite his opposition to the President's advocacy of an end to the ban on homosexuals in the military, he is a trusted Clinton confidant. The endorsement of so senior a military figure was vital for the young governor of Arkansas last year on the 'commander-in- chief' issue, as he fought allegations of Vietnam draft-dodging and accusations of inexperience in defence affairs.

The 68-year-old Admiral Crowe was commander of Nato forces in Southern Europe between 1980 and 1983, before a four-year stint as the Pentagon's top uniformed official during Ronald Reagan's second presidential term.

He currently heads the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. He is reported to have turned down earlier offers from President Clinton to become director of the Central Intelligence Agency or the US envoy in Moscow.