Friday, June 27, 2008

Diplomatic Lives - Hill, Hold and Gigs

A few weeks ago, Glenn Kessler (WaPo, May 26, 2008; A01) wrote about Christopher Hill entitled Mid-Level Official Steered U.S. Shift On North Korea. I supposed because he is not a cabinet level secretary, one could call him a mid-level official. But in the universe of Foggy Bottom, as Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs (EAP), Ambassador Hill is one of the principals, and one of the senior career diplomats. You can check out the org chart here where you can see him under P; that’s pretty high up in the food chain, or pay grade or whatever you call it these days.

In a comment that has gone generally unnoticed, he was quoted as saying:
"I am not a freelancer. I am not a free agent," Hill said on the Brown University podcast. "When I go and talk to any of these people . . . I do it with a set of instructions. I don't come up with stuff on my own and claim it is U.S. policy. At the end of the day, we have what we have and I phone it in and then we see what the president decides."

Kessler writes that Hill is at heart a dealmaker adding this: "During the Clinton administration, he was a key negotiator for the Dayton Peace Accords, which ended the Bosnian war, and played an important role in dealing with the Kosovo crisis. His mentor in both jobs was former U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who taught him how to handle the media and push the bounds of his official negotiating instructions to get a deal."

Critics of the Foreign Service sometimes assume that the professionals working at Foggy Bottom create their own agenda, and do their own thing, separate from the mandate of our elected officials. They don’t. They may be trained in the art of negotiations, and the no-blink contests, but they don’t sit around with a strategy that has not been vetted by their superiors. Have we ever had a rogue diplomat who sold us down the river during negotiations? Nope. And this reminds me of a James Boren quote:

“Officials in foreign ministries have an advantage which few other bureaucrats have; when dealing with an especially awkward or apparently insoluble problem they can instruct their nation’s ambassador abroad to register concern about, enabling themselves to claim to their superiors and to other interested parties at home that they have done something about the issue. If there are no results, they can impute blame to someone else for this deplorable outcome. If the issue is resolved, they will be in a position to claim credit for this.”

Foreign ministries and this one is no exception. And such is life for most diplomats, a life under the seams, their most important work under wraps, their O.K. Corral "gunfights" only known in classified cables, and seldom under the public eye; "the secrecy of negotiations, so often disputed by their contemporaries, is largely forgiven in the silence of posterity" as Jules Cambon says.

Rule #1 - In the conduct of diplomacy, a diplomat has forever the main supporting role, even as the lead actor is not on stage.

Shortly after the Hill piece appeared, a related report also by Glenn Kessler showed up. This one entitled "Rice Says Policy on N. Korea Is A Team Effort," (WaPo, May 30, 2008; A11). The report starts with this lead line: "Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wants people to know: The Bush administration's policy toward North Korea has been carefully coordinated and developed by many people at different agencies."

Uh-oh! Somebody with enough clout did not like that spotlight focused on the Hill.

Kessler says that the news might come as a surprise to many insiders as well as to Ambassador Hill, who is quoted in an upcoming book, "Meltdown," by Mike Chinoy, as saying: "Some of this minimal paperwork business is coming directly from the secretary. She said, 'Bring it only to me.' The report notes that Ambassador Hill "appeared to be confirming what already has appeared in various news reports, and is amply documented in Chinoy's book -- that Rice and Hill keep the circle of knowledge about his dealmaking tightly held."

Apparently, in a recent interview released by the State Department, the Secretary disputed Hill's comment when she was asked about it. "That wouldn't happen to be accurate," Rice told reporter Steve Hayes. "I don't know what he's referring to. . . . I don't cut out people of my team. . . . So this has been very much an administration effort."

That's going to be the last word on that, folks. Rebuttals are eternal in courts and even in real life, but not on this one. With barely a couple or so hundred days to go left on the six-party talks, I thought he might end up in the doghouse on this one, but based on recent news, it looks like there's no cause for concern. Still something is worth remembering...

Rule #2 - Be careful where you stand; casting a shadow on the lead actor is not good (unless you already have your next gig lined up elsewhere or you have an ace up your sleeve).

Meanwhile, in a related development, Josh Rogin reports in CQ Politics that Republicans Sam Brownback of Kansas and George V. Voinovich of Ohio have placed holds on the Kathleen Stephens nomination as the next ambassador to South Korea. Neither hold, Rogin made clear, has anything to do with Stephens’ personal or professional record. He writes: "The holds threaten to derail the Stephens nomination, delivering a setback to her patron Christopher Hill, assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs, who seeks to install her as an ally in a sensitive diplomatic post as he tries to implement agreements related to the so-called six-party disarmament talks." The Voinovich protest is reportedly on behalf of Ohio resident Richard Melanson, whose son was allegedly abducted to South Korea by the boy’s mother, after a custody dispute in 2007.

Uhm, thirty years in the FS, a moment in the sun at the wrong time and bamm! I'm not sure there is a rule that one can follow to avoid a craterfall like this one. Select a better patron? Nah! All patrons will have their quirks that for one reason or another somebody or someother would not like. So - there's not much to add except to say ...

Rule #3 - Sometimes life sucks - on stage, off stage, in the FS and elsewhere in this universe - even when you're just standing on the sidewalk. I think the trick is simply not to get run over (or get super-glued inside the doghouse) so that you can get on to the next gig.

In his August 1 column, Al Kamen wrote about the possibility of Senate confirmation for career diplomat D. Kathleen Stephens to be ambassador to South Korea. Apparently, Sen. John Warner (Va.), senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee, invited Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), to a committee hearing yesterday. "Warner praised Stephens and then yielded his time so Brownback, who's not a committee member, could question her anew about her views on human rights and North Korea. Brownback had put a hold on her nomination in April, saying he "did not get satisfactory answers" from her when they chatted privately on human rights issues. She and assistant secretary of state Christopher Hill apparently did better yesterday. Brownback lifted his hold."

There is still George V. Voinovich of Ohio on behalf of Ohio resident Richard Melanson, whose son was allegedly abducted to South Korea by the boy’s mother, after a custody dispute in 2007. Perhaps we'll see Mr. Voinovich in another session at the Armed Services Committee, too?

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