Please, sir, may we have an ambassador?

Australians ask why the US has been so slow to dispatch a replacement to fill the top diplomatic slot in Canberra.

More than a year after the former US ambassador said his goodbyes to Australia, the top diplomatic post remains vacant in Canberra, reflecting a casualness that has the typically laid-back Aussies getting a little anxious.

Sure, even good mates don't always keep in touch - to a point.

And with trouble in the Middle East, spy scandals at home, and plans to move hundreds of diplomats to hot spots around the world, filling an ambassadorial post in the South Pacific may not be high on the White House's priority list.

A relaxed attitude by both governments - which are in agreement on almost all matters of foreign policy - has allowed months to pass before doubts finally began to be raised here that perhaps the Americans were being a tad callous toward their close ally.

"The US definitely takes us for granted - and they know that it's not a difficult relationship to manage and that we don't need any sort of mollycoddling or day-to-day attention," says Elizabeth Thurbon, professor of politics and international relations at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

No reason has been given for the delay in dispatching an ambassador to Canberra's vast US Embassy grounds. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has stated that he would like the position to be filled as quickly as possible.

After Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice canceled two trips to this country in as many months for more pressing matters overseas, an editorial in The Australian asked, "Is it something we've done?"

Among America's closest allies in the war on terror, only the United Kingdom has suffered for so long recently without the attentions of an American ambassador. But even in London's case, the post was filled within 12 months.

US watchers here say that the person appointed must be someone loyal to President Bush, and preferably a major donor to the Republican Party. In addition, he or she has to be able to operate easily at high levels between the countries' two leaders. They also point out that sun-drenched Australia could hardly be considered a hardship posting.

The job of any ambassador, besides dealing with political and economic differences, is to enhance the image of his or her country overseas.

"But when we've signed the Free Trade Agreement, agreed to send troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, there are no real grievances between the US and Australia," says James Jupp, professor of political science at the Australian National University. "And as far as spreading the American image abroad, nothing does it better than TV."

The US could not have a bigger supporter in Australia than Prime Minister John Howard - a sort of de facto US ambassador, some say, who in case of a crisis can just pick up the phone and call the White House. The leader of the opposition here is also strongly pro-American.

"If you look at the recent Free Trade Agreement, you see that we were compliant on most issues, and when Australian negotiators were ready to walk away from the agreement at one point because they said it was unfair to the sugar farmers, the Australian prime minister basically told them to go back and sign on the dotted line," says Ms. Thurbon, adding that it made a mockery of the negotiating process.

When an ambassador is finally picked, it could take Congress several months to clear the nominee, meaning that it may be nearly two years before the post is filled.

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