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White House Sticking With Its Iraq Pick


Christopher Hill (State Department photo)

The Obama administration is confident in its choice to replace the well-regarded Ryan Crocker as the next ambassador to Iraq — despite an unexpected level of GOP opposition to the pick.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on Thursday issued a statement opposing Christopher Hill, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, whom President Obama unveiled two weeks ago as his choice to become the next Baghdad envoy. But Hill’s lack of diplomatic experience in the Middle East has alarmed the two senators. While McCain and Graham praised Hill as a “talented diplomat,” they placed his unfamiliarity with the region at the center of their opposition, alongside his inexperience “working closely with the U.S. military in counterinsurgency or counterterrorism operations” and what they termed his “controversial legacy” negotiating on behalf of the Bush administration for North Korean nuclear disarmament.

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin
Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

But the opposition from influential Republicans is unlikely to dissuade the administration. “The White House will stand by Hill,” an administration official said.

What’s more, McCain and Graham have yet to enlist Republican members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the campaign against Hill. On Tuesday morning, Hill met with Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), the ranking GOP member on the committee, and secured Lugar’s support, according to a Lugar aide. No other Republican members of the committee returned repeated messages seeking comment. Hill’s confirmation hearing before the committee is scheduled for March 25.

Hill’s tenure as North Korea troubleshooter in the Bush administration is key to understanding the current pushback, according to a second Obama administration official. In the Bush administration, Hill resisted punitive measures against the North sought by hardliners and successfully shifted policy in the direction of direct negotiations with Pyongyang. Bilateral negotiations had been rejected for years by officials like Vice President Dick Cheney, who said over the weekend that he thought Hill would be a poor choice to send to Baghdad. Hill’s detractors view him as responsible for “some sort of neocon betrayal,” said the official.

Although the diplomatic post in Baghdad is one of the most important in the State Department, Hill, a veteran diplomat with experience in southeastern Europe as well as east Asia, has never served in the Middle East. Brooke Buchanan, a spokeswoman for McCain, said that while she couldn’t “speak to every person’s service” in the diplomatic corps, “there are other people out there” with better qualifications for the position. Buchanan added that McCain did not have an alternative candidate in mind. Spokespeople for Graham did not return repeated messages seeking comment.

Hill was not the administration’s first choice for the ambassadorship. Retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni has spoken publicly about meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton about the job, only to have it rescinded from him. While rumors have circulated that Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan and a mentor of Hill’s, engineered Hill’s nomination, a White House aide said Holbrooke was less involved in the nomination than is widely believed.

Democrats on and off the committee have rallied behind Hill. “By nominating Ambassador Hill to serve in Bagdad, President Obama has chosen one of our very best to help bring lasting peace to Iraq,” said Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the committee chairman, in a statement late last week. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called Hill “precisely the kind of diplomat America needs in the Middle East and Iraq.”

The former ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, is widely credited with harmonizing the embassy’s relations with the U.S. military after his 2007 arrival in Baghdad. Crocker worked closely with Generals David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno to bring cohesion to U.S. policy that had previously suffered from compartmentalization and even occasional civil-military acrimony. An Arabic speaker with nearly two decades of experience as an ambassador in the region, Crocker’s chief job in 2008 was to negotiate a basing accord with the Iraqi government called the Status of Forces Agreement. While the Iraqis insisted on including a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal in the accord against the wishes of the Bush administration, Crocker guided the negotiations to a successful conclusion. He left Iraq in January.

Obama administration officials recognized the burden Crocker inadvertently bequeathed to his successor. “There’s not another Ryan Crocker,” one said.

But veteran diplomats were less concerned that there needs to be. “It’s true that [Hill's] got no experience” in the region, said Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and veteran of several diplomatic positions in the region, including service in Iraq. “But he brings two very important skills critical to being an ambassador in Baghdad: One, he’s got a lot of background negotiating with really difficult people, and two, he knows how to maneuver in Washington.” Neumann, currently the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, a nonprofit educational organization, said that Hill would be ably assisted by “the capable people on his staff,” particularly incoming Deputy Chief of Mission Robert Ford, a longtime political counselor in Baghdad who also worked closely with Neumann.

“The staff can help with the substance,” Neumann said, “but if you don’t have bureaucratic weight to deal with [Washington], all the area knowledge won’t save you.”

The next Iraq ambassador will have a daunting number of challenges to confront. By the end of June, the U.S. military will withdraw from Iraqi towns and cities in accordance with the Status of Forces Agreement, creating pressures for the Iraqi government to provide security. As well, tens of thousands of Sunni ex-insurgent militiamen will come onto the Iraqi government’s payrolls on April 1 despite governmental opposition to the creation of those militias, which were initially bankrolled by the U.S. military. And by the end of the year, Iraq will experience its second post-invasion national election, all while U.S. combat brigades withdraw from the country.

Correction: The American Academy of Diplomacy is a nonprofit educational organization but it does not lobby. We regret the error.

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