Out of America: Many ambassadors are missing - and where is the President?

WASHINGTON - He's damned if he does, and damned if he doesn't. Which is perhaps another way of saying that when you're Bill Clinton these days, and you're trying to fill the hundreds of key jobs in the gift of the White House the only principle that operates is Murphy's Law.

Do nothing, and you are pilloried for indecision and weakness. Make a decision and, as the wretched episode of Lani Guinier's nomination to head the civil rights division of the Justice Department showed last week, it explodes in your face. But Mr Clinton's greatest sin is of the first variety - and nowhere more so than when it comes to picking the people who will represent the United States abroad.

An ambassador serves at a president's pleasure, and at this stage of an administration unfilled postings are not unusual. But the current crop of empty embassies is beginning to raise more than just eyebrows. According to the New York Times the other day, 37 of the 164 US embassies have neither ambassador nor nominee. And we are not talking of the Burkino Fasos and Liechtensteins of this world. They include countries like Saudi Arabia, India, Israel and Japan. If the US's foreign policy appears adrift, there could be no more telling pointer.

Not that the problem is limited to Embassy Row. Twice a year journalists receive a precious little volume called the Capital Source. It lists the name, job and phone number of anyone who 'matters' in town. This spring's issue, which arrived just three weeks ago, is illuminating. In many departments, only the top one or two officials are true Clinton plenipotentiaries. Beneath them, a few names are followed by an N, signifying 'nominated' but not confirmed. Rather more are 'acting'; hold-overs from Republican times, while not a few are simply marked 'vacant'.

Take the Department of Commerce. Mr Clinton wants it to be a powerhouse of interventionist government; yet Secretary Ron Brown, the former Democratic Party chairman, has no deputy of any kind. On the next rung, two under-secretaries await confirmation, four are 'acting', and none can deal authoritatively with Congress. At the State Department though, not senators but sovereign nations are doing the complaining: 'Where is our US ambassador?'

Up to a point, the delays are defensible. As the White House points out, with 12 confirmations under his belt this Democratic President is actually doing better than either George Bush or Ronald Reagan at comparable moments in 1989 and 1981. After the 'Nannygate' affair, which scuppered Zoe Baird's chances of becoming attorney-general last January, background checks are necessarily even more laborious. Mr Clinton, too, has the honourable goal of naming more women and minority candidates to high posts. The Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, did present recommendations for each vacant embassy, only to fall foul of what is jokingly known as the 'EGG' factor: ethnicity, gender and geography. Then there is the spoils system, more complex than ever under Mr Clinton.

Famously, this President is a man of very many friends. He also has a host of debts to repay. The process itself is nothing new; since time immemorial, US ambassadors have often been chosen without regard for diplomatic experience. When he took over last January, Mr Christopher promised State Department employees that henceforth real qualifications would be essential. The assurance has been honoured largely in the breach. The few jobs so far filled have mostly been political appointments, and there will be more of them.

As a prominent Democratic fundraiser, Jeanette Hyde feels an embassy would be proper reward for her services. Greece, Switzerland, Cyprus or Luxembourg would be acceptable, she has been quoted as saying, 'even a small island'. Her pretensions, however, are not the problem. It is rather that neither she nor anyone else has received an offer.

The ambassadorial logjam offers a cameo of two great weaknesses of Mr Clinton's way of governing: his insistence on making even secondary personnel decisions himself and his extreme difficulty in reaching them. This week, we are told, he will finally decide on the far greater matter of a replacement for Justice Byron White. A president has few more important legacies than his appointments to the Supreme Court. Justice White announced his retirement in March, four months in advance, to allow the President ample time to have the Senate confirm a successor before its own summer recess. The advantage has been all but squandered. So late has Mr Clinton left it that all may slip to the autumn.

And all these amid the aftershocks of the Lani Guinier episode. The risk is that he might draw the wrong lesson. In his forlorn appearance in the White House press room last week, the President explained he had withdrawn her nomination because only in the last 36 hours had he read her writings on minority rights that gave such offence to conservatives. In short, he had not done too much homework, but too little. If that is his belief, then Japan, India and the rest may be without ambassadors for a good while yet.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Learning Support Assistant - Newport

£65 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Cardiff: Due to the continual growth and...

Operations Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: I am currently recruiting for an Operati...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, Security Cleared

£100 - £110 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Ham...

Senior Digital Marketing Executive

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based i...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz