The current controversy over the nomination of former Gov. William Weld of Massachusetts as ambassador to Mexico tends to obscure a larger problem - a pattern of increasingly long delays in both the nomination and the confirmation process for chiefs of diplomatic missions abroad.
That certainly includes Mexico City - now without a resident ambassador, and destined to be so for some time. But the pattern was evident well before.
Only now, with Felix Rohatyn's confirmation, will Paris have an ambassador, a post that had been vacant since February. Similarly, in Moscow, where Ambassador James Collins has just been confirmed, there has been no chief of mission since November of 1996. A nominee has yet to be named for Tokyo, vacant since February of this year, although former House Speaker Thomas Foley is expected to be named. New Delhi and Seoul are without ambassadors and nominations have not been announced.
Last year the process was even more delayed when nominations were caught up in presidential campaign timetables and crowded congressional calendars. The nominee for Australia, for example, announced in March 1996, did not reach Canberra until almost a year later. The same was true for Venezuela, another country of some consequence for American interests. A vacancy in Bonn that began well over a year ago has only now been filled, with the confirmation of Ambassador John Kornblum.
A good many other examples could be cited - even a small post like Malta, important because of a Libyan connection, has been without a chief of mission since the incumbent left in March of last year to run (and lose) in a race for a House seat from Rhode Island.
The reasons are many, not least the political sensitivities that now accompany most senior-level appointments in government, but also the enormously complex financial disclosure forms and the long and often repetitive security investigations - essential and mandated by law, but which seemingly develop lengthy lives of their own. And Senate committee proceedings can be glacial - assuming, in the Weld case, they begin at all.
It is not that dire consequences necessarily result in our relations with the governments involved. Capable career officers acting in the interim are usually there to carry on. But delays of this order are becoming an unfortunate - and seemingly accepted - part of the political process in Washington. They reflect badly on both ourselves and the way, as a government, we view our relations with the countries involved - and how they see us. Nor do they further the achievement of our diplomatic and national security interests abroad.
President Clinton, announcing his appointment of George Tenet as director of Central Intelligence in March, said, "I believe we should not leave these positions vacant long, particularly in the national security area, but throughout government I didn't see any point in waiting around." The president was right; vacancies should not be left vacant in the national security arena. What is essential is that the nomination process be expedited and that the Senate, more specifically the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, then act expeditiously to ensure what is equally important - thorough and constructively critical hearings on the merits of those whose names are put forward.
* Bruce Laingen is president of the American Academy of Diplomacy in Washington.