Brussels or the Bahamas? Lisbon or Luxembourg? Paris or Prague? The Bush administration has revealed little about its plans for filling ambassador positions.
“We are moving with as much speed and efficiency as we can to determine which posts need to be filled first and to send names to Congress as quickly as we can,” Bush spokeswoman Juleanna Glover Weiss said.
The president, she said, “will clearly go for the most qualified and those best suited for each individual position.”
One name being mentioned is Rep. Curt Weldon for ambassador to Russia. One of Congress’ leading Russia specialists, Mr. Weldon “is not actively pursuing an ambassadorship,” although he is flattered to be considered, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Republican said.
Pete Peterson, the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam in the Clinton administration, said in a statement earlier this month that he had been asked to stay on in Hanoi for “an indefinite period.”
George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, said the Bush administration has asked him to remain in his post as U.S. ambassador to Rome-based U.N. agencies. “I have accepted,” he said in an interview.
The State Department lists 164 ambassadors, or “chiefs of mission.” About a third, 54, are political appointees; the rest are career foreign service members. The breakdown has been that way for decades.
Once the Senate confirms the entire Cabinet, Mr. Bush is expected to fill other top agency and administration posts before turning his attention to diplomats.
“I don’t think it’s high on his radar screen,” said Bruce Laingen, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy. It probably is a higher priority for Secretary of State Colin Powell, he said.
“Political appointees as ambassadors are a reality. They’re a tradition of this nation, and there’s a lot of good to it because it’s part of the public service tradition,” said Marshall Adair, president of the American Foreign Service Association, the organization of career diplomats.
Most of the posts assigned to political appointees are in Europe, such as London, Rome, Paris and Vienna. Felix Rohatyn created a vacancy in Paris when he left to begin a new job with a think tank in New York and work on his memoir.
Many appointees do outstanding jobs in their posts despite lacking a background in the diplomatic service, Mr. Adair said, citing Mr. Rohatyn and Tom Foley in Tokyo as examples.
“What you will see about now is virtually all of the political people packing their bags and coming back home,” said Casimir Yost, director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy.
Given the confirmation process and the huge pressures for confirmation, you may have embassies that are led by deputies for periods of months, “and some go even as long as a year without an ambassador,” Mr. Yost said.
Among the vacancies is one in the Philippines, where the most recent candidate for ambassador retired after his nomination was tied up for nine months in the Senate.
Career diplomat Peter Burleigh, who drew wide praise as acting U.N. ambassador during the Kosovo crisis, was named to the Manila post by the Clinton administration. But his nomination was blocked by Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, because of a standoff with the State Department over a whistleblower at the United Nations.