The re'sume's of W. Nathaniel Howell and April C. Glaspie are so much alike they could be bookends.

The two highly regarded ambassadors have spent their professional lives as diplomats navigating through the intrigue and violence of the Arab world, prepared now as few others to cope with the crisis confronting the United States in Kuwait and Iraq.

But while Howell, holed up in the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait in defiance of Iraqi orders to vacate, was on every news broadcast yesterday, Glaspie, the ambassador to Iraq, was conspicuous by her absence, touching off speculation about her role.

Glaspie left Baghdad for a long-scheduled vacation in London three days before Iraq invaded Kuwait Aug 2. She is now in Washington, reportedly working at the State Department each day but totally out of the public eye.

But there was no uncertainty about Howell's role yesterday. He and a handful of colleagues remained in the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait, surrounded by Iraqi troops. The United States and at least eight other countries refused to obey an order from Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to close their embassies and move diplomats to Baghdad, the Iraqi capital.

This is hardly Howell's first brush with a dangerous situation in the Arab world. The ambassador, 50, has spent 25 years in the foreign service, mostly in the Middle East. He has been posted to Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Algeria and the United Arab Emirates, and has been ambassador to Kuwait for three years. In fact, he was preparing to leave. The Senate has confirmed his successor, Edward W. Gnehm. In Beirut during the early years of the Lebanese civil war, Howell had the tricky assignment of political reporting about the Palestine Liberation Organization -- to whose members he was not permitted to talk. He stayed on in that war-ravaged capital after his wife and children were evacuated to Athens. As ambassador to Kuwait, he was on the scene when Kuwaiti tankers were reflagged under U.S. protection during the war between Iran and Iraq.

The bearded Howell speaks fluent Arabic and French. He holds bachelor's and doctoral degress from the University of Virginia, where one of his former teachers, R.K. Ramazani, said yesterday, "I just can't believe we could have had a better person under these dire circumstances. He keeps his cool, and he's a very strong-willed person."

Glaspie, 48, has been around the Arab world almost as long as Howell and is the first woman to rise through the ranks to become ambassador to an Arab nation.

Fluent, like Howell, in Arabic and French, she was a political officer in Jordan and Egypt, director of the State Department's Arabic language school in Tunisia and deputy chief of mission in Syria.

She has an infectious laugh but is known as a workaholic. Unmarried, she has been accompanied to her foreign assignments by her mother. Glaspie was born in Vancouver, B.C., but reared in California. She is a graduate of Mills College in Oakland and holds a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University.

Former ambassador to Egypt Alfred L. Atherton described her yesterday as "a very able officer" -- a view widely shared among Middle East hands, some of whom have expressed bafflement about her absence from Iraq.

Asked about Glaspie yesterday, State Department deputy spokesman Richard A. Boucher said, "No decision has been made to send her back." He gave no reason, but other officials have suggested that the administration is holding her back to signal Saddam that it does not want to conduct business as usual. Glaspie has not been available to reporters.