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Hill revisits his tour of duty in Iraq

In September 2010, State Department veteran Christopher Hill assumed the dean’s post at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies. During his 30-plus years of foreign service, Hill has routinely been at the frontlines of history, negotiating with the North Koreans, promoting peace in the Balkans and most recently, serving as U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

In early January, Hill sat down with DU Today to discuss his remarkable career and offer his insights on recent events in the international arena. A video of that discussion, along with the transcript, will run in three installments.

This is the second  installment.   

DU Today: At the time of your 2009 appointment as ambassador of Iraq, you were not considered an expert in the Middle East. What made the ambassadorship to Iraq of interest to you?
Well, it came out of the blue, I’ll tell you that. I was getting ready to leave the State Department after a really rewarding career, and I was asked by Secretary [Hillary] Clinton to come up to her office, and I sat down there, and she made a few really nice comments and asked me if I could do one more thing. I thought she meant writing one more memo on North Korea. Instead, she asked me if I would go to Iraq to be the U.S. ambassador. I want to make it very clear, it wasn’t a job I was looking for at all. Indeed, I responded to her by saying, “I’m very honored. I know how important this job is, and I’m going to have to think about this.”

And I thought about it, and I concluded that if you look at the gauntlet of U.S. foreign policy concerns in this new millennium, Iraq is right up there, and I wanted to complete my career with service in Iraq. To me it was an opportunity. When I got there, I realized what everybody else knew, which was, this is a tough one.

Even though I hadn’t served there or in the Middle East before, 32 years of diplomatic service prepares you for a few things. And certainly many of the patterns I could see in Iraq were very familiar to me from other countries I’d served in. So I can’t say I found too many surprises. And I might add that I met people who were working on Iraq, contractors and whatnot, who did not have the experience of working in other countries, and frankly I found some of their judgments rather suspect. Because these countries may be unique, but their problems are not unique. And so when you saw some of the problems of government formation, for example, the problems of holding free and fair elections, to me this was very, very familiar patterns, especially from the Balkans — which, as I remind people, was the western half of the Ottoman Empire, with Iraq being toward the eastern side of the Ottoman empire, with some of the same similar historical legacies. So it wasn’t surprising to me, and it wasn’t surprising to many of my team, many of whom had not served in Iraq, but what you did notice was that people who had made their careers on Iraq, who’d only seen Iraq, really lacked the perspective, in my view, to have good judgment on Iraq. 

DU Today: Well, your work in Bosnia, in the Balkans, gave you a lot of experience contending with ethnic tensions.
Exactly. If you look at the Sunni-Shia divide in Iraq, these are very similar patterns to what you would see in the Balkans. This is really about identity. This is about what you are. You know Americans, we have this very strong civil society, so you can call yourself a Polish American or a Greek American, but at the end of the day, you’re an American endowed with certain unalienable rights. And you know what those rights are, so you have a very strong sense of being a citizen when you’re from the United States.

But for many of these countries, what are these states for? These states are there to protect the identity of the nation. And the nation is defined often in ethnic terms, or in the case of the Iraqis in sectarian terms. So the Shia, who were very much discriminated against, very much trod upon by the Sunni minority, they had a real sense of identity as Shia. You ignore that kind of stuff at your peril. You ignore the fact that people see their identity as Sunni or Shia at your peril. You need to understand that. Identity is a very funny thing, and for Americans, we have really squared the circle, we’ve really understood that identity should be what you are as a citizen and what rights as a citizen you enjoy. In many other countries your identity is not a civil identity, it’s an ethnic or a sectarian identity. We also have those things. Heck, we also have baseball identity. I’m a Boston Red Sox fan, and I could never change that. It’s in my DNA. But it doesn’t matter because I also have a civil identity as an American citizen. That civil identity is not something you see throughout the world.    

DU Today: Being ambassador to a country bedeviled by stress is certainly different that being ambassador of …
Wait, who’s bedeviled by stress? The country or the ambassador? 

DU Today: The country. Or perhaps both. Tell us what your job was like? Your day-to-day job. When I envision the life of an ambassador, I’m not sure I picture it in the same way for a country like Iraq as I do for a country like Austria or Poland.
Well it is different. My day as ambassador in Iraq had some rather unique features that I didn’t have in Poland or I didn’t have in South Korea. But there are some things that are pretty similar. For one thing, you’re an ambassador, but you’re at the top of a large team. So you’re running a kind of business.

When you get up in the morning and come into the embassy, you have people who have prepared some reports for you, things that have come in over night, so you develop a kind of situational awareness, so you get an update on what happened the previous night. Then you’ll have briefings and you’ll have your intelligence person come and show you what’s gone on in intelligence terms. “We’ve heard that so and so has talked to so and so. They’ve agreed on this or that, or not agreed on this or that.” … Then you might meet your political or economic section and talk about things they need to get into Washington, or things that they need to get done. For example, you’re sitting with your political section and they say, “Well, this sheik is talking to that sheik and they haven’t reached an agreement.” Can we find more about that? Is there anything we can do to help them reach that agreement? Is there any phone call that I can make to someone, you know things like that. So you sort of huddle up before you run the play.

In addition to doing these very tactical things every day, you’re also standing back and looking at the overall situation. You might have a conversation saying, “OK, the Iraqis are going to have elections in March. What are the things we need to get done to support this process?” You might appoint someone to put together a memo. Often it comes down to writing a memo, holding a meeting or sending a telegram, which are not the most inspiring of choices. … And so there’s a lot of internal stuff that any person running a corporation would be very familiar with, problems you’re dealing with in a corporation.

But in addition, there’s an external side to being an ambassador. You’ve got to go and talk to the foreign minister, talk to the president, talk to the prime minister. You’ve got to try to convince them of something they may not want to do.  You need to have developed the kind of relationships with these people so that when you call up the foreign minister, he wants to take the call — even though you might be a pain in the neck, he at least likes the way you’re a pain in the neck, so he’s prepared to take the call. You really are working on relationships.

And then you’ll have people involved in things that have nothing to do with government to government.  You might have nongovernmental organizations, philanthropic groups, and you want to be encouraging of them, and you want to show that the embassy is very open to what they’re up to. So you find that your afternoon might be chopped up with all these 30-minute meetings, with people coming in telling you of various activities they’re engaged in, and at the end of the meeting they may want a photograph with you, that sort of thing. That sort of thing goes on not only in Iraq, but also in places like Poland, for example. Because there are a lot of Americans out there doing good work, and they want to know what their embassy is up to, and if they can meet the ambassador, they very much want to do that. That happens in any country.

The other thing you try to do is get yourself out of your office, out of your embassy, not just to see the president or prime minister but also to go to other towns and meet people, see what’s going on on the ground, see what economic assistance programs are really working, see what needs to be done in order to get things to work better.

And that’s where it can get interesting.  One time when I was in Iraq, we had gone to see a provincial council, and it was one of those meetings where they kept asking for things. And I said, “Yes, we can help you with that, but no we cannot help you with building that international airport.” As I am driving back, my convoy, which consisted of about six large SUVs, which were thankfully armored, my convoy hits an improvised explosive device. So you have this kaboom right in front of your vehicle, this thick black smoke. Everything shakes. The air concussion is very noticeable. And you speed through this thick, black smoke, and you think to yourself, “Goodness, I almost bought my lunch here in Nasiriyah.” So there are moments like that which are rather unforgettable. 

DU Today: The United States has long been worried about Iranian influence in Iraq. But, via Wikileaks, one of the cables you sent your bosses at the State Department suggests that Iraqi officials aren’t as worried about Iran as they are about Saudi Arabia? Why is that?
First of all, you are trying to inform your bosses. You’re also trying to inform lots of people who may not be your bosses, but they may be nibbling at your ankles the whole time you’re out there. You’re trying to keep everyone informed back in Washington, and show them you’re on the job and you’ve looked at this issue from any which way. Because what you don’t want is, “Gee, we haven’t seen anything from Embassy Baghdad on Iran in the last few months. Do you have any thoughts?” You want to be much more proactive than that, you want to be informing them before they’re asking to be informed. That’s one reason you’re sending in these things. 

What we try to do with respect to Iran is show the people in Washington that if you’re an Iraqi, you’re not just worried about Iranians. You’re worried about a whole host of Sunni countries. It’s important to understand that when you look at all the Arab states in the Middle East — whether it’s Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco — there is not a single Arab state that is Shia led. All Arab states, even if they have a Shia majority population, such as Bahrain, which is about 70 percent Shia, they also have a Sunni government. So the proposition that we’re trying to accomplish, to fulfill, in Iraq, is a democratic country. And if it’s going to be democratic, if people vote according to their identity as Shia, what will happen is Shia will win the election. Then you will have an anomaly. You will have a Shia Arab  state where there are no other Shia Arab states.

For many Sunni Arab states — I’m sorry to get bogged down in all this, but it is complicated — they look at this one single Shia state and they go, “Aha, that country is under the thumb of the Iranians.” So whenever a Sunni Arab state ambassador comes to Washington, talks to people in Washington and says, “Have you Americans thought about the fact that you are turning that country, Iraq, over to the Iranians and they will become a Shia ally of the Iranians?” What you’re trying to do is to show them that actually the situation on the ground in Iraq is a little more complex than that. First of all, the Shia in Iraq are very different from the Persian Shia. Secondly, Saddam Hussein fought an eight-year war against Shia Iran with an Iraqi army that was 80 percent Shia. There is no love lost, and one has to be careful of the notion that because Iraqis are Shia, they will somehow gravitate toward the Shia of Iran. I mention all this inside baseball because these are the kinds of things you’re trying to explain to people in Washington, to say, “Hold on, the situation is a little more complex than some of these cartoon-like slogans might suggest.”

Meanwhile, the journalists reporting for big newspapers in Iraq, reporting back to their editors in New York or Washington, they may not understand it all that well either. Look at what’s gone on in journalism. You see younger and less experienced journalists than ever before. Ironically, as the journalism profession has taken a hit with all their economic problems, it has come back to the embassy, as it was in the 1950s or before, to try to take the lead in making sure people in Washington understand what is really happening.

DU Today: We Americans are often accused of having a short memory, yesterday’s news cycle is forgotten, and so events like Abu Ghraib and some of the other events that have transpired since the occupation may have receded in our memories. But is that true of the Iraqi people? Did you find that these were still issues?
These were definitely issues. These were very painful issues obviously, because the whole premise of invading a country and claiming the moral high ground is that you’re somehow better than the government you’ve toppled. If you’re involved with torture and things like that, this challenges that premise. This is not something that Iraqis have forgotten, by any means.

At the same time, surprisingly, many Iraqis are prepared to move on — in a way that sometimes Americans are less prepared. And I think the reason is, for Americans, like you and me, this is a very shameful moment. We cannot believe that our own countrymen were involved in this sort of thing. For Americans it is extremely upsetting. For Iraqis, it may be extremely disappointing, it may be extremely upsetting, but maybe they didn’t quite have that image that we have for ourselves. There is no question that it was damaging, there’s no question that it lingers, but I also don’t want to suggest that it has kept us from moving on.    

DU Today: So, months and months after the elections, Iraq finally has a government that includes all of its major political parties. At the same time, sectarian violence is diminished but still present, and recently we have had attacks on Christians. Are you optimistic about Iraq?
Well, optimism and Iraq are not two things which you put in the same sentence. But it being around the new year, let me just say I think there is some reason to believe that things will move ahead in a positive direction. I think the most important thing that happened when I was there was not all these machinations with the politicians trying to work out deals. And by the way, it didn’t take nine months to come up with a government that involved Sunnis and Shias and Kurds. It took nine months to come up with a government in which the Sunnis, Shias and Kurds agreed on who was going to do what. No one was ever proposing a government that excluded Sunnis or excluded Kurds. So it took a long time.

But I don’t think that was really even the most important thing that happened in Iraq during the last 18 months. I think much more important was the fact that Iraq, for the first time in half a century, invited foreign companies to help them exploit their own natural resources, oil and gas. When you look at some of the companies that went into Iraq starting in summer of 2009 and really out on the ground in spring 2010, you can see that Iraq has the potential now to develop their own oil resources. Of course the money is staying in Iraq, so Iraq is going to be able to rebuild itself.  Basra, which is one of the saddest looking cities you’ll ever see, is going to be transformed, not just in our children’s lifetime, but in our own lifetime. You’ll see tremendous changes there because of the influx of billions of dollars, billions of petrodollars. I think as Iraq goes forward and as they’ve developed the kind of institutions they need — they’ve got a pretty good finance ministry, for example, they’ve got a pretty good petroleum ministry, their central bank is pretty competent — so as they develop these institutions, I think they’re going to be able to manage this, and I think they’re going to be OK.

It will never be the Iraq that many of the most ideological supporters of the war envisioned in 2003. That Iraq doesn’t exist and never will exist. But it will be an Iraq that, in terms of the region, will manage its problems in a much better way than it has to date.  

Next: Christopher Hill offers his insights into the enigma that is North Korea.  

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