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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.