March 14, 2009

The Trouble with Christopher Hill

We all know Christopher Hill is a smart and talented diplomat. But has he ever served in the Middle East? And has he ever worked hand-in-hand with the U.S. military? Lindsey Graham and John McCain have some reservations about putting him in Iraq:

"We have real concerns with the President’s decision to nominate Assistant Secretary Christopher Hill as the next U.S. Ambassador to Iraq," said Senators Graham and McCain. "While Mr. Hill is a talented diplomat who has served our country for many years, his selection for this post concerns us.

"The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad is the world’s largest, and our next ambassador will take the helm at a particularly critical time in our efforts in Iraq," Graham and McCain continued. "The next ambassador should have experience in the Middle East and in working closely with the U.S. military in counterinsurgency or counterterrorism operations. Mr. Hill has neither. Given these considerations, together with the controversial legacy Mr. Hill left in his North Korea diplomacy, we believe that the President should reconsider this nomination."

I noted my own reservations about this appointment a few weeks back when it was announced, and for the same reasons (aside from that bit about North Korea). My objections were tempered by the fact that Robert Ford -- an ambassador with a tremendous amount of Iraq experience -- had agreed to serve as Hill's deputy. But behind the Hill appointment is something else. I get the sense that the Department of State is anxious to start treating Iraq like any other state. The lack of enthusiasm for PRTs, for example, suggests that while the military still views the Iraqi state as a work in progress, the Department of State would rather get back to processing visas and strengthening commercial ties. With a few exceptions -- mainly the brave young foreign service officers and senior diplomats who have served in Iraq -- I get the sense that the Department of State has never really switched on to the Iraq War. And I worry about a fundamental difference between the way the military and policy-makers in Washington see Iraq and the way the Department of State sees it. Why on Earth would they think Chris Hill is a suitable replacement for Ryan freaking Crocker? Yes, I know the Obama Administration ultimately nominated him -- not State. And yes, I know Hill is a darling of Richard Holbrooke. But I really just don't understand this pick and wonder if a broader disconnect is in play. (h/t Intrepid Spencer)

Update: The comments section is filled with some good justifications for Hill's selection. What about the bigger question, though?