WASHINGTON - As a crucial vote on the United Nations budget loomed last December, U.S. Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke could be seen roaming the halls by night, buttonholing U.N. delegates and bullying and coaxing his way to a successful outcome.
Last week, another important U.N. vote drew near, on membership in the organization's Human Rights Commission. But this time a U.S. ambassador was nowhere to be found, and the result was humiliation as Washington lost its commission seat for the first time since the group was formed in 1947.
The United States' ouster has been blamed on several factors, including international resentment over Washington's criticism of human rights practices in China, Cuba and elsewhere.
But current and former diplomats say a vacancy of more than three months in the U.S. ambassadorship to the United Nations contributed to the setback and is hurting international relations just when the Bush administration could use a good global PR agent.
"If we had had a permanent representative on the scene who was in charge of managing U.S. affairs in these contexts, they would have picked up straws in the wind" that the seat was at risk, said Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the Reagan administration.
Holbrooke stepped down in January, at the end of the Clinton administration. President Bush has not yet asked the Senate to approve a replacement.
Though Bush said March 12 that he intends to appoint veteran diplomat John D. Negroponte to the post, the paperwork on the nomination has languished amid persistent questions about whether Negroponte knew of and concealed human rights abuses in Honduras in the 1980s, when he was ambassador.
The Bush administration denies that sensitivity over Negroponte's record or an especially intensive background check has caused the delay. Noting that the Senate has confirmed Negroponte for two ambassadorships since his Honduras tenure, administration officials blamed the delay on a complicated financial disclosure process related to his severance package from publisher McGraw-Hill.
"Those spurious allegations about Ambassador Negroponte's record in Honduras have played no role in any delay of Negroponte's nomination," a State Department official said.
Congressional and administration officials said they expect Negroponte's nomination to be submitted to Capitol Hill in the next few days. The White House hopes for a vote before the end of the month.
Senate Democrats, some of whom have expressed concern over the prospect of Negroponte as U.N. ambassador, have asked for classified documents relating to his record in Latin America.
"My sense is, they're making a concerted effort to gather information," said Susan Peacock, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, which has been sharply critical of Negroponte.
A 1995 investigation by The Sun examined a Honduran army unit known as Battalion 316 that was trained and equipped by the CIA and that kidnapped, tortured or executed hundreds of suspected subversives in the 1980s during Negroponte's tenure as ambassador.
The Sun's articles showed that Negroponte learned from numerous sources about the Honduran military's human rights abuses, but evidence was played down or deleted from embassy reports that might get to the public or Congress.
Whatever the cause of the delay in the nomination, the result is a diminished U.S. presence on the world stage as the Bush administration is pushing a national missile defense, withdrawing from the Kyoto treaty on global warming and making other moves that have generated international concern.
"Even countries that are friendly to us say, 'What's going on? You're not a partner anymore,'" said William Luers, president of the United Nations Association of the USA, who said he is concerned that Washington's ouster from the Human Rights Commission will generate a new U.N.-U.S. rift.
Congressional Republicans promised Tuesday to withhold about $240 million in U.N. dues unless the United States regains its human rights seat next year. Part of what has outraged Democrats and Republicans about the loss of the seat is the presence on the panel of countries such as Sudan, Libya and Sierra Leone, which are frequently criticized for their human rights practices.
On the day it lost its human rights seat, the United States was voted off another U.N. panel, the International Narcotics Control Board.
U.S. officials deny that the lack of an ambassador contributed to the loss of the seats, saying the acting ambassador, James Cunningham, campaigned vigorously for the positions. Other diplomats contradicted that assertion.
"The U.S. started its campaign very late," said Per Nordstrom, deputy ambassador to the United Nations for Sweden, which gained a seat on the rights panel. "It seemed that they more or less took it for granted. The Austrians started their campaign more than a year ago" and gained a place on the panel.
By all accounts, factors other than the lack of an ambassador, or permanent representative, were involved in the loss of the seats. Many nations are unhappy with Washington for its stance on the Kyoto treaty and missile defense as well as the Clinton administration's refusal to sign a treaty banning land mines.
Even so, "it gives a whole lot more weight if your permanent representative is part of the campaign and calling on his colleagues," Nordstrom said.
The nominations of Charlotte Beers as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and Paula Dobriansky as undersecretary of state for global affairs also have been held up by the financial disclosure process, which gets more complex when nominees are leaving corporate jobs, the State Department official said.
Bush announced his choice of Beers, an advertising executive, March 26, but has not sent her nomination to Congress. Three weeks elapsed between the president's naming of Dobriansky, former director of the Washington office of the Council on Foreign Relations, and the dispatch of her nomination paperwork to the Senate on April 4. The Senate confirmed Dobriansky April 26.