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.”


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.”