Is This the Hill Sam Brownback Wants to Die On?

March 18, 2009 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

Returning for a second to the GOP opposition to Chris Hill, the Obama administration’s choice to be the next Iraq ambassador. Josh Rogin’s write-up for Congressional Quarterly highlights this criticism from Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kans.), one of the five Republican senators calling on President Obama to withdraw Hill’s nomination:

At a July hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Hill, as the chief negotiator for the six-party talks, promised Brownback he would elevate the human rights issue in bilateral discussions and invite Jay Lefkowitz, the State Department’s special envoy for North Korean human rights, to all future negotiations with the North Koreans.

In exchange, Brownback lifted his hold on the nomination of Kathleen Stephens to become ambassador to South Korea. Neither promise was kept, Brownback said. “I had a direct statement made to me in open hearing and nothing happened,” he said.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Chris Hill flat-out lied to Sam Brownback. That he had his fingers crossed under the witness table. That he deleted Jay Lefkowitz’s phone number from his BlackBerry on the way out of the hearing room. That he laughed maniacally as soon as the hold on Stephens was lifted. So what?

There’s a solid case to be made that Hill, who’s never served in the Middle East, doesn’t have the experience necessary to be the next Iraq ambassador. That case has been made way more complicated by the endorsements of the past three Iraq ambassadors — is Ryan Crocker gambling with the security of the Iraq mission???? — but still. Beyond that case, to argue that a talented diplomat (in the words of GOP Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham) shouldn’t get an important wartime position because he misled a senator about a detail while maneuvering a diplomatic breakthrough about North Korean nuclear disarmament makes Brownback look trivial. If he wants to argue that Hill compromised the North Korea mission, he’ll have a hard time explaining away the mostly completed closure of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor.

What’s more, with Brownback being off the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, his options for stopping Hill’s nomination are limited to filibustering Hill after the committee votes him to the full Senate. At that point he’ll be essentially re-litigating a mostly successful Bush administration *policy around the question of a personal assurance — after Hill has the support of the previous three Iraq ambassadors *and the GOP leader of the relevant Senate committee. This is a fight Brownback wants?