Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Tempest on the Hill Over Christopher Hill’s Nomination?

Christopher Hill, Photo from State Department He is the first career Foreign Service Officer nominated by the Obama Administration to get his embassy and Congress is unhappy enough to ask the President to withdraw his nomination. Go figure! See the senators’ letter here.

Briefly, some senators want the President to withdraw his nomination of Christopher Hill as Ambassador to Baghdad because – well, because ....

Apparently -- because 1) of his long record of service outside the Middle East and outside the sphere of civil-military relations; 2) he may need the equivalent of a crash course in Iraqi Affairs; 3) they found his work in the Six Party Talks for North Korea “deeply troubling," and 4) he talked – he talked to NYT’s David Sanger for his book The Inheritance, where he is quoted as referring to his superiors in “dismissive and derogatory” terms!

Their letter even pleads on our behalf (see American people), “We require an ambassador who will deal with the American people, our President and Congress with frankness, honesty and professionalism.”

Well, first -- Ambassador Hill in the Sanger book (see my previous post Our Inheritance: Bush’s True Legacy) did call a bunch of them “assholes,” with total frankness; it was refreshing to see that in black and white. He also said honestly that these folks “did not know how to negotiate,” (he could have pretended that everyone knew what they were doing, he did not). And of course, he did slog through the Six Party Talks despite the bureaucratic minefields and live to tell about it – I think I’ll mark that last one down for professionalism.

Frankness, honesty and professionalism -- okay, done! But that thingy about a “crash course” really gets me though -- how come we don’t hear from these guys when car dealers and board sitters are nominated as ambassador to some enchanted country and needed crash courses in diplomacy and world affairs?

Last Monday, Secretary Clinton was asked specifically about the Hill nomination and she had a lot to say.

QUESTION: Madame Secretary, how do you respond to criticism from Senators McCain and Graham and Brownback that Chris Hill is – does not have the experience necessary to become ambassador in Baghdad? He doesn’t have the experience in the Arab countries. And they also allege that he doesn’t have the negotiating skills necessary, and they point to the recent deadlock in the negotiations with North Korea as an example.

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, obviously, I think both of those criticisms are unjustified and unfounded. Chris Hill is a distinguished, experienced diplomat who has served in some very difficult positions on behalf of our country. Another very distinguished, experienced diplomat, John Negroponte, was our ambassador to Iraq. He did not have Middle East or Arabic language skills when he was sent to Iraq. I believe the people you’ve just mentioned, my former colleagues, all voted for former Deputy Secretary Negroponte. So I think on the experience basis, he is not only very well-qualified in terms of running a large embassy, helping to deal with the myriad of issues that will arise as we conduct our withdrawal, but we’ll have around him, as any ambassador does, people who have particular skills and expertise.

With respect to the North Korean mission that we believe Ambassador Hill carried out with great persistence and success despite some difficult challenges, this is a hard set of challenges to meet. And it is our perspective that he made a lot of lemonade out of some pretty bad lemons, and he was able to get the North Koreans on record as agreeing to certain obligations. We now have to follow through on those obligations.

So our assessment, which we believe is rooted in the facts, may be different from those who, you know, are rightfully distressed with and extremely critical of North Korean actions on human rights, on their continuing effort to obtain nuclear weapons, on their belligerence and their provocative actions. But that is something that is not in any way reflective of the job that Chris Hill did in the Six-Party Talks, where we think he did a very good job.

Well, I'm glad she said all that. For the record, GOP senators McCain, Graham, Brownback and all the signatories of this letter, voted to confirm Negroponte as Ambassador to Iraq on May 6, 2004. Ambassador Negroponte was overwhelmingly confirmed in a vote of 95 to 3. The three who voted against his confirmation? All Dems -- Dayton (D-MN), Durbin (D-IL), and Harkin (D-IA).

Reports indicate that Senator Brownback is expected to mount the stiffest opposition to the Hill nomination because of a long-running dispute over how to handle human rights abuses by the North Koreans. But the good senator did vote “Yea” for Ambassador Negroponte who has a weighty human rights baggage (allegations denied by the ambassador) from his tour as US Ambassador to Honduras.

So here is what I can’t understand about this tempest on the hill that is frankly, scrambling my synaptic connections silly –

It was all right for Ambassador Negroponte to serve in Iraq even when he previously served only in Europe, Central America and Asia and spoke no Arabic, but it is not all right for Ambassador Hill to serve in Iraq because he previously served only in Europe and Asia and speaks no Arabic?

Wow! I am utterly confused now but -- I'm glad to see this statement of support for Ambassador Hill from Senator Lugar. I do wonder still what kind of fish sauce are they eating over there? Curious minds would like to know 'cuz it stinks.

Update 10:45 PM:

PHK corrected me on Negroponte's record: he was Consul General in Thessaloniki, Greece in the 1970s so he did serve in at least one European country as well as Latin America and Asia. Thanks PHK! Read up on John Negroponte here, and Christopher Hill here. Update 3/20: Short-term memory senators have now made it to Olberman's Worst Person segment today. Starts at 00.46 into the short clip.

4 comments:

PHK said...

Looks like playing cheap politics to me. Fortunately, there are only five signatures on the letter.

One correction re Negroponte's record: he was Consul General in Thessaloniki, Greece in the 1970s so he did serve in at least one European country as well as Latin America and Asia.

Couldn't agree with you more about the unqualified political appointees making it through Senate confirmation no questions asked. It's absurd.

DS said...

Thanks for the correction, PHK! I wonder if these folks vote then just count on the public's forgetful memory on how they voted.

T. Greer said...

I think a lot of it has to do with the very successful Crocker-Petraues tag team; many Republicans who idolize the departing pair (not to mention COINdistas who think they were both stellar) would like to see another such pair arise with Ordinaero and the new ambassador. With his limited experience with the region and the U.S. military, it might be quite hard for Hill to reach common footing with commanders on the ground.

Or at least, this is how I am reading it. (Such an explanation also deals with the Negroponte issue- Crocker/Petraues set the model up after Negroponte left, and it is to them, not to Negroponte and Sanchez, that the new American team will be compared.)

DS said...

Hey TG, thanks for the comment. I doubt if there is another partnership out there that can quite compare to the Crocker/Petreuus partnership. I expect that the demands and challenges in Iraq will be different in the lead up to the troops withdrawal and in its aftermath.

All former ambassadors to Baghdad - Negroponte,Khalizad and Crocker have now endorsed Hill's appointment, not to mention the DOD top brass who are anxious to have him come onboard. So this might be a fight that have just lost its air. We'll see. Hearings will reportedly be next week.