McCain & Graham vs. Chris Hill

Friday, March 13, 2009 at 2:23 pm

Unexpectedly, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) have a problem with prospective U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Chris Hill. From a joint statement they put out yesterday:

“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.”

First, the substantive case against Hill that they make isn’t without merit: he doesn’t have any Middle East experience, doesn’t speak Arabic, and doesn’t have much in the way of experience with counterinsurgency. But really not many ambassadors can fit all three criteria. Maybe that’s an argument for promoting some of the longer-serving staff at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Longtime embassy political counselor Robert Ford is already an ambassador; and he’s already slated to be deputy chief of mission, the person in charge of day-to-day management of the embassy.

But Hill is also an extremely well-esteemed diplomat. McCain and Graham should explain how his tenure with the North Korean negotiations was actually problematic, since it resulted in the destruction of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor. More recent backsliding on disarmament in the North can hardly be attributed to Hill alone. What’s more, if he was “controversial,” he was controversial in productive ways. From The Washington Post:

In David Sanger’s recently published book, “The Inheritance,” Hill offered a blunt dismissal of his hard-line foes in the administration. “These [expletive deleted] don’t know how to negotiate,” he said. “Everything is Appomattox. It’s just ‘Come out with your hands up.’ ” …

Hill arrived in South Korea in 2004, when tensions with the United States were running high. In Seoul, he broke with diplomatic precedent — and charmed the South Korean public — by repeatedly visiting universities and other hotbeds of anti-Americanism to give speeches and have debates. He established an online chat room and personally answered questions from Koreans under the name “ambassador.”

Who would Graham or McCain send in Hill’s place?

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