Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Christopher Hill, the president’s nominee for ambassador to Iraq, is a disconcerting choice to head America’s largest embassy, located in the most dangerous region in the world.

Hill is a neophyte in dealing with the complexities of Middle East politics and Islamic terrorism. The Baghdad assignment is no post for on-the-job training. Furthermore, as the current assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, he presided over negotiations with North Korea that deliberately minimized focus on the bleak human rights record of that country, ignored its nuclear proliferation, and had the practical effect of affirming its nuclear weapons capability. Hill also has a troubling hotdog tendency to play by his own rules, to the detriment of U.S. diplomacy.

Today Hill goes before the Senate for his confirmation hearing. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) has threatened, with good reason, to use Senate rules to stall Hill’s appointment, as reported by The Washington Times’ Eli Lake. A letter signed by Brownback and four other senators notes Hill’s “evasive and unprofessional activities” including “sidelining key officials” and “breaking commitments” to Congress. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) have also separately expressed their misgivings about Hill.

Hill’s go-it-alone approach was illustrated in July 2005 when he violated U.S. policy and express orders from superiors by meeting with North Korean Vice Minister Kim Kye-gwan in Berlin to revive the Six Party talks. Pyongyang crowed over the bilateral meeting, a concession it had been demanding for years, and the North Korean official news agency stated that “the U.S. side clarified its official stand to recognize [North Korea] as a sovereign state, not to invade it and hold bilateral talks within the framework of the six-party talks.” Hill was fortunate he was not immediately cashiered.

Recently the Japanese weekly magazine Shukan Gendai quoted an unnamed senior North Korean official close to General Secretary Kim Jong Il who revealed that Pyongyang is conducting back-channel diplomacy directly to the Obama White House, courtesy of Hill. The official said that Hill “introduced to us an influential American who can convey our message directly to President Obama. Therefore, we have used that channel.” It would be worth examining if this channel really exists, whether it is known to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton - Hill’s boss - who this influential American is, and most importantly what role Hill played in setting it up.

Hill’s brand of cowboy diplomacy might be justified if it produced favorable results, but his record in dealing with North Korea is dismal. Hill, as portrayed in David Sanger’s book The Inheritance, gripes about the Bush administration to friends, saying “these [expletives] don’t know how to negotiate.” He said that hard-line demarches favored by “neocons” were worse than the terms offered at Appomattox. His said his approach, on the other hand, would be familiar to “anyone who has haggled for some vegetables in a Korean market.” But the inescapable fact is that North Korea had no nuclear weapons when Hill violated U.S. policy to get the Six Party talks going again in 2005, and in 2006 Pyongyang tested its first atom bomb. Hill’s crowning achievement in “vegetable haggling” was having North Korea taken off the list of terrorist states. This is hardly a record to be proud of. It surely is reminiscent of Appomattox, but with the North Koreans setting the terms.

Given Hill’s failed record, we are deeply concerned about the possible role he will play in the impending U.S. diplomatic opening to Iran. Hill has deflected discussion of his future role in the Iranian nuclear negotiations, joking that his “writ ends at the Himalayas.” But North Korea’s nuclear program reaches deep into the Middle East, something that Hill chose to disregard in negotiations with Pyongyang. North Korean technicians were videotaped at the Syrian nuclear site that Israel destroyed in September 2007, a fact Hill never brought up lest it derail “progress” in the ongoing talks. We wonder if Hill will speak firmly to Iran regarding Iranian weapons, training and intelligence support being used to destabilize Iraq and kill Americans, or dismiss those matters as impediments to reaching a “grand bargain” with Iran.

If anyone wants Iran to have the same nuclear capability as North Korea, Hill is your man.

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