Senate ratifies nominee to U.N.

Holbrooke approved as ambassador after 14-month struggle

August 06, 1999|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Senate confirmed Richard C. Holbrooke as ambassador to the United Nations yesterday, ending an acrimonious 14-month standoff and filling an influential post that had sat empty while the United States waged war in Yugoslavia.

A seasoned trouble-shooter who won credit for negotiating the 1995 peace agreement in Bosnia, Holbrooke was approved by a vote of 81-16, a wide margin that belied the machinations and partisan rhetoric that preceded his confirmation for more than a year.

His tasks now include not just international relations but also mending fences with the United Nations, to which the United States owes $1.6 billion in dues.

Holbrooke, 58, was traveling yesterday and was unavailable for questions. But in a statement, he said he was "deeply gratified" by the ratification of his nomination to the Cabinet-level post.

The position was vacated in September by Bill Richardson, who left to become energy secretary.

"I look forward to working closely with Secretary Albright and other members of the president's foreign policy team to advance our vital national interests," Holbrooke said, referring to Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright.

The nomination was first delayed by ethics questions about Holbrooke's lobbying activities. But the final eight months of the impasse were unconnected to his qualifications and contributed to what some scholars called a disturbing trend of political gamesmanship involving key presidential appointments.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican, had blocked the nomination over an unrelated dispute with the State Department.

Grassley voted for approval.

The Senate debated for only a half-hour on the nomination of Holbrooke, an investment banker with Credit Suisse First Boston, a former ambassador to Germany and a former assistant secretary of state.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he knew of no foreign-post nominee "more qualified for the job for which he was nominated."

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, called Holbrooke "one of America's great natural resources."

Hutchison opposed

The only senator to speak against the nominee was Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican. She called Holbrooke "a principled man" but objected to his key role in a Balkans policy she had opposed.

Holbrooke will arrive at the United Nations as the United States continues to settle into its role as the world's only superpower.

U.S. dominance subjects it to jealousies, hostilities and supplications, many of which are filtered through the United Nations. Holbrooke must tend to the usual diplomatic hot spots of Taiwan, the Middle East, Cyprus, the Balkans and others, as well as such global issues as climate change and population control.

His most immediate job will be working with the United Nations to establish a peacekeeping force and civil administration in Kosovo.

"I wouldn't expect any major change in policy as a result of Holbrooke being ambassador," said Kenneth Rodman, professor of government and international studies at Colby College in Maine.

"One of the things Holbrooke might be good at is lining up votes, lining up others to go along. His reputation in the State Department was as a fixer. Someone who gets things done. Someone who brings parties together," Rodman said.

Holbrooke must also soothe tensions raised over his country's status as chief U.N. deadbeat. Political squabbling and doubts among many Republicans in Congress about the value of U.N. dues have put the United States deep in arrears to the international organization, based in New York.

Although Holbrooke has his work cut out for him, analysts say those kinds of problems aren't unusual for U.S.-U.N. relations.

"I wouldn't characterize relations as any worse than they've been in the past," said Thomas H. Henriksen, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. "Historically, the relationship has been rocky, and I think there will always be some of that."

Split is denied

The State Department dismissed notions yesterday of a rift with the United Nations.

"There isn't a problem in U.S.-U.N. relations that Ambassador Holbrooke has to fix," said department spokesman James P. Rubin.

Rubin added that Albright "has an extremely close working relationship with [U.N.] Secretary-General Kofi Annan."

If nothing else, in the eyes of many foreign diplomats, Holbrooke will be suitably representative of the United States. Brusque and pugnacious, smart and ambitious, he embodies some of the qualities that many foreigners attribute to his country.

That prickly style helps explain the 14-month gap between his nomination by President Clinton and his confirmation. But it's not the whole story.

At first, the nomination was delayed by an ethics inquiry involving allegations that Holbrooke violated lobbying laws applicable to former government officials. Holbrooke agreed to pay $5,000 to settle that issue but denied any wrongdoing.

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