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Term-end compulsions tie Bush hands in envoy choice

Washington, April 25: In America’s search for a successor to Robert Blackwill for the remaining one-and-a-half years of the Bush administration, the choice may be made because of the most tenuous of India connections.

Two names are circulating in the grapevine here as front-runners, both career foreign service officers.

One is Jeffrey Davidow, alumnus of Hyderabad’s Osmania University in the 1960s, who was US ambassador to Mexico.

The second is Kenneth Brill, who had a very challenging three-year tenure as deputy chief of mission in New Delhi from 1991, much of it as acting ambassador during the long interregnum between Thomas Pickering’s departure and Frank Wisner’s credentials.

In October, Brill will complete two years in Vienna as America’s permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency and other UN organisations in Austria.

Few non-career names are doing the rounds in well-informed circles here. A rare exception is that of former Republican Congressman Benjamin Gilman, who took the initiative in 1999 as chairman of the House of Representatives International Relations Committee to get President Bill Clinton to take the initiative of ending the Kargil war.

Sources familiar with the thinking in the administration said President George W. Bush would like to send a high-profile, non-career ambassador to India.

But with only a year-and-a- half of his current presidency remaining, most public or business leaders are unwilling to reorganise their lives to meet the demands of an overseas assignment for such a short period.

The President remains highly popular among Americans, but only on issues of defence and national security. America’s economic woes, which are mounting by the day, have raised the spectre of Bush Senior’s defeat to Clinton soon after the 1991 Gulf war all over again.

Any non-career ambassador who is to succeed Blackwill will have to wind up his affairs here, put money in trust as they will not be allowed to do business under the law and so on. Nominees do it willingly, but only when their tenure is co-terminus with four years of presidency or at least most of it.

In the case of New Delhi, as things stand now, a new political appointee’s tenure may even be just one year because the Senate may take its own time to confirm the nominee.

The state department, which is naturally keen to keep the India job for one of its people in the tradition of Pickering and Wisner, is arguing that Davidow or Brill will sail through the confirmation process as they are professional diplomats and have already been ambassadors.

Others argue that someone like Gilman will get the professional courtesy usually shown by colleagues on Capitol Hill when their names are put up for jobs which require Senate approval.

Gilman retired from the House of Representatives in January after 30 years as a legislator. But unlike him, those still in active politics are reluctant to leave it for an ambassadorship at this time when the campaign machine for elections in 2004 is being put in place.

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