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
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
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
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

SQL Developer (TSQL, SSRS, SSAS) Fund Manager - London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Harrington Starr: SQL Developer (TSQL, S...

Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, Jasmine, Angular.JS)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, Jasmine, An...

Front-End UI/UX Developer (HTML5, CSS, JavaScript, jQuery, Ang

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End UI/U...

C#.NET Server Side Developer (C#, XML, WCF, Unit Testing,SQL)

£30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C#.NET ...

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition