How unfilled posts affect US image abroad

Lack of UN envoy and public-diplomacy czar take toll on US at a time of UN reform and Mideast tension.

At the outset of his second term, President Bush placed improving America's image abroad and relations with allies at the top of his agenda.

But several months on, two of the Bush II administration's key diplomatic and outreach posts sit vacant - one held up by a high-profile Senate confirmation battle, the other unfilled by its designated occupant until the fall. The two vacancies send mixed signals to a world that continues to hold a dim view of American policies - particularly in Arab and Muslim areas - even as it looks to the United States for leadership.

The more attention-grabbing of the two is the US ambassadorship to the United Nations, for which Mr. Bush has nominated controversial arms-control diplomat John Bolton. Naming the blunt proponent of American power delighted conservatives while dismaying liberals, and it's now held up in Senate committee where moderate Republicans wanted to take a second look.

A committee vote is now set for as early as Thursday, with most observers at this point predicting Mr. Bolton's eventual confirmation. But the battle has left the seat unfilled at a time when countries are formulating positions on the sensitive issue of UN reform - an administration priority.

Less publicized is the absence of Bush's designated occupant for the post of undersecretary of State for public diplomacy. Bush surprised many by nominating longtime confidante and communications aide Karen Hughes to the post in March - assigning her to effect the kind of change on America's image abroad that she is known for having accomplished on Bush's behalf.

But Mrs. Hughes, who left the White House for Texas in 2002, is not expected back in Washington until the fall, after getting her son settled in college.

Rice on a roll

Still, the two vacancies are not disastrous at this point, in part because Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has gotten off to a fast start, taking the image of an engaged and newly diplomatic America to a large number of countries, analysts say. At the same time, Hughes - who is expected to face easy confirmation when she goes before the Senate - is presumably beginning to "telework" on her new portfolio, public-diplomacy advocates say. Despite this, however, some experts warn that just naming people to these posts is not enough.

"Right now we're doing fine, and we may even be able to pull some advantage from a period of low-profile presence. But by the end of May or June, push will start to come to shove [on UN reform], and we're going to need to have a strong presence," says Edward Luck, an expert in US-UN relations at Columbia University in New York.

And while the Hughes appointment was widely received as a positive sign of the administration's seriousness about addressing America's image abroad, its impact is dissipating as the first weeks of the second term stretch into months, analysts with government experience say.

"It was taken as a very important signal when Karen Hughes was appointed, because here was someone very close to the president being named to a position that previously was not a locus of power in the administration," says Lee Feinstein, a former policy-planning staff official in the State Department, as well as an aide to Madeleine Albright when she was UN ambassador. "But the fact it will be vacant for so long is not encouraging," especially in a second term when the "window" for new policy, he adds, is so narrow.

Yet Mr. Feinstein says that of the two vacancies, the UN one is likely to be more detrimental to US interests because it is the more diplomatic and "back slapping" position - a point with which others agree.

"These jobs have a lot of symbolic value, and if they're left unfilled, it's negative," says William Kiehl, executive director of the Public Diplomacy Council, a Washington advocacy group. "That said, there's a lot Karen Hughes can do from Texas to get our public diplomacy going, but the UN job is different. It really does require the physical presence of our permanent representative, which is a position of leadership for everybody at the UN."

Carrying on with diplomacy

In fact, the administration's public-diplomacy work - increasing educational and cultural exchanges, putting US officials on media that reach the Islamic world, and building working relationships with Arab and Muslim pro-democracy groups in particular - has not stopped while the effort awaits a new leader, officials say.

"Of course, everyone is anticipating [Hughes] coming in with new ideas and new directions, but until then a lot of good things are happening," says Walid Maalouf, director of the US Agency for International Development's public-diplomacy efforts for the Middle East. He points in particular to new efforts to enlist Americans of Middle Eastern descent in the administration's democratization push.

But the fact that the US does not have its top representative in New York as countries discuss such key reforms as enlargement of the Security Council, refiguring of the Human Rights Commission, and management transparency is more worrisome to some observers.

Mr. Luck of Columbia, however, says some delegations at the UN are seeing Bolton's travails in a positive light, figuring the outspoken UN critic would probably arrive with "sails trimmed."

It's a misguided assumption, Luck believes, but foreign diplomats may be overlooking one advantage to Bolton, he adds - that his pristine conservative credentials should allow him to make the case to a Republican Congress for whatever UN reforms or support the US agrees to.

In the end, it may mean less that the US didn't have its UN ambassador in New York for a time, than that the administration got someone there who could communicate with domestic UN critics, says Feinstein, now at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

"I don't think Bolton was appointed to send a message to the rest of the world," he says, "but to send a message to the Republican base."

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