The Wrong Man for the Job

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.

Just as geography drives history, so do individuals. The right or wrong man in a pivotal position can affect the destiny of millions. And I don't only mean presidents and dictators, I mean ambassadors, too. In this regard, the appointment of Christopher R. Hill as ambassador to Iraq may come back to haunt the Obama Administration.

Hill is certainly no lightweight. Indeed, he has a highly distinguished career in the Foreign Service. He served in the Peace Corps in Cameroon before joining the State Department and is a real linguist, speaking Polish, Serbo-Croatian, Macedonian, and Albanian. He was a key player in high-stakes diplomacy in the Balkans in the 1990s and in the Korean Peninsula during this decade, when he was also assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. In sum, he is one of our star diplomats.

But he is not the best man for this particular job. The Arabs, like other cultures and civilizations, have deeply ingrained characteristics of language and history that require years of study before an outsider can be truly effective in their midst. Hill has proven himself a quick study by jumping from Eastern Europe, where he had been for years, to take charge of negotiations with North Korea. But it’s asking too much of anybody to jump directly from there to war-torn, teetering-on-the-edge Iraq and be brilliantly effective the first day on the job. Yet that is what is required. And that was the standard met by Hill's predecessor and Bush Administration appointee, Ryan Crocker, an Arabist with lifelong experience in the Middle East, who instantly rose to the challenge.

It's not as though the Obama Administration didn't have other choices. The same pool of State Department Arabists from which Crocker emerged contains other candidates equally up to the task. There’s Cameron Hume, for instance, 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. There’s also David D. Pearce, 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 most famously, there’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. Zinni does not speak Arabic, but as a former Centcom commander and Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiator, he is an expert on the Middle East. And as a former general he would have had instant credibility in Iraq's martial society. Zinni was clairvoyantly opposed to the Iraq War before the invasion, even as he has taken a constructive position that we must now succeed in Iraq for the sake of our regional policy.

Contrast the Administration's choice of Hill for Iraq with that of its wise decision in Afghanistan to replace Army Gen. David McKiernan with Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal as commanding general. Like Hill, McKiernan was highly competent, but not the best person for the job. By putting the more driven and charismatic McChrystal in his place, the Administration signaled that Afghanistan is simply too important to leave in the hands of someone merely adequate. Yet when it comes to Iraq, the Administration has clearly gone for the lesser option.

Iraq is now at a tipping point. American troops are a diminishing factor as they slowly withdraw from the country. There has been an uptick in sectarian-motivated bombings, and relations between the Kurds and the Arabs are worsening by the day in the north. A return to civil war in Iraq could destabilize the whole region—and undo all the good that U.S. troops accomplished by suppressing violence there in 2007 and 2008. Iraq matters every bit as much as Afghanistan—arguably more so. At this sensitive juncture, the U.S. ambassador’s role as trusted facilitator who can keep the various parties talking and cooperating with each other is crucial. A successful behind-the-scenes deal or two could mean the difference between war and peace in Iraq—and by inference in the wider Middle East. Shouldn’t this job go to someone in whom we can have supreme confidence?

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. But such a view, while arguably historically accurate, would be supremely cynical.

When McChrystal was selected as commanding general, the media took note of his extraordinary talents, and observed that the new Administration had now taken complete charge of the war in Afghanistan, making it truly its own. One could say that the appointment of Hill likewise signals a wresting of Iraq policy away from the previous administration, but not for the better. At this point, we can only hope that Hill rises to the occasion.