Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Ambassador Hill is a "Bad Choice" -- the 36th Edition

POTUS with his Generals and Ambassador White House Photo

Tom Ricks over at FP has posted an item about the power struggle in Baghdad that apparently nobody is covering:

“American insiders in Baghdad say the relationship between the top U.S. commander there, Gen. Raymond Odierno, and the top civilian official there, Amb. Christopher Hill, is deteriorating rapidly. Old hands say the chill between the two brings to the bad old days of Sanchez vs. Bremer, when those two unfortunates barely would speak to each other as the American position fell apart in early 2004, along with Iraq itself.”

With short tours in Iraq, I wonder how many old hands are still there to remember the bad old days. And who can talk about the ambassadorship in Iraq without talking about General Zinni? Ricks says that “for some inexplicable reason, we've never had a structure that gives the Americans unity of command, with one person in charge of the overall national effort. (Calling Gen. Tony Zinni! Oh wait, the Obama administration screwed him early on about an Iraq post, and he isn't taking their calls anymore.)” Ricks says he never understood why Ambassador Hill was picked for Baghdad.

Well, he’s not the only one it seems. Last August just months after Ambassador Hill was confirmed by the Senate, Robert Kaplan in The Atlantic writes that Obama's new ambassador to Iraq is a star diplomat—but has no experience in the Arab world. Why Christopher Hill is a bad choice.” Kaplan helpfully goes through a short list of alternate choices for Hill’s job in Baghdad: Cameron Hume who is “a lifelong Arabic-speaking career diplomat with big-embassy experience as ambassador to Algeria, South Africa, and Indonesia—the world's most populous Moslem country.”

David D. Pearce who is the “current ambassador to Algeria, another lifelong Arabist, who began his career as a newspaper correspondent in Beirut, and went on to hold sensitive diplomatic positions in Syria, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf.”

And ta-da!

“[T]here’s former Combatant Commander for U.S. Central Command, Marine Gen. (Retired) Anthony C. Zinni, who was reportedly offered the job of replacing Crocker in Baghdad before the Administration reneged and settled on Hill […] Kaplan avers that Zinni does not speak Arabic either but that he is an expert on the Middle East as former Centcom commander and Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiator. “And as a former general he would have had instant credibility in Iraq's martial society.”

Kaplan also writes that “Maybe at some level the Obama Administration feels that if Iraq descends again into chaos it can always blame the Bush Administration for having invaded in the first place.”

Wha--aat! hah

Some says that the jury is still out on Iraq. You think? How long did it take for history to blame Britain for the artificial creation of a state out of the diverse religious and ethnic elements inhabiting the ancient lands of Mesopotamia? Whether Iraq descends into chaos again or not, the prevailing narrative already blames the Bush Administration for invading Iraq in the first place. And with reasons. Of course, history can come out the other way,too -- especially if the neo-culpas with this entertaining preview, writes their ultimate version of history (Oscar Wilde said once, “Any fool can make history, but it takes a genius to write it”) .

In any case, Ambassador Hill and General Odierno are both career professionals who happened to be joined at the hip like Siamese twins right now. They either do their mission well together or do it badly and fail together. I’d rather they don’t do the latter because that would be bad.

But what I find terribly hilarious is the persistent complaints about this non-Arabic speaking ambassador with no Middle East experience. Give it a rest, folks. President Obama had made his choice on who should be his personal representative. The jury won’t be convened until 2012.

And for those with selective memories, here’s one solid name for you – John Negroponte. He was confirmed by the United States Senate on May 6, 2004, by a vote of 95 to 3, and was officially sworn in on June 23, 2004 replacing L. Paul Bremer as the U.S.'s highest ranking American civilian in Iraq. As far as Google could determine, Negroponte speaks several languages but had no Arabic and had no Middle East experience when he was appointed US Ambassador to Iraq.

I don’t recall hearing persistent second guessing on Ambassador Negroponte months into his new assignment, with names of this General or that thrown about because the Ambassador spoke no Arabic and was without a Middle East experience. This feels like déjà vu without Senator Brownback.


Update @ 10:15 am: Ambassador Hill has officially denied a rift with General Odierno via Josh Rogin in The Cable: "Whatever 'source' he had was obviously not someone privy to my relationship with Ray. In short, Ricks is 180 degrees wrong about our relationship," Hill said, "I know Ray Odierno agrees with me that living and working in this place is tough enough without having to deal with this sort of thing out of Washington."


T. Greer said...

Eh, back in 2004 the American elite were rather naive. They still thought Iraq was a model democracy in hiding, remember? Why treat Iraq any different than the rest of model democracies?

Such is the thin excuse for the past. We know better now though. We know that Iraq is a tinderbox. We know that good ambassadors - and Ryan Crocker is the exemplar of this - can make a difference. If Hill is indeed the wrong man for the job, he ought to be replaced, and quickly.

diplopundit said...

Hey TG - True about 2004, but one could argue that precisely at that time when somebody with a ME experience was particularly needed. Iraq will always be a tinderbox. That country has no real sense of nationhood but of ethnichood. I just find it generously odd that a guy just months into a new job already has a list of successors. The faults cited such as lack of ME experience and language are nothing new. Maybe at some level if Hill fails, some folks can then say, "I told you so."

In the end, the President picked him as his top civilian man on the ground; his choice is the President's responsibility . I'm sure that when he no longer has the confidence of the President, he will be replaced (as is the case with other ambassadorial appointments). But one more general in Baghdad is not going to solve Iraq's problem.

T. Greer said...

I agree, one more general in Baghdad will not fix Baghdad. Simple putting a general in the ambassador's position and then calling it a day is not good enough.

On the flip side, I had hoped for Obama to choose an Arabist, someone with contacts and experience in the region, for this position. I don't really care if the man is a general or an old FSO -- a good understanding of Iraqi politics is what is needed. As you note, not having these things is nothing new. Yet I had hoped that by now we had stepped up to take responsibility for the mess we created. Subpar appointees should not be tolerated here.

Of course, I do not really know if Hill is a subpar appointee. I do not know enough about his character to make that determination. Obama seems to have faith in him though, and that should be enough -- this discussion is quite academic anyway. I just hope that if Hill is indeed a poor choice for this position, Obama will not be afraid to replace him with someone better suited for the task.