Print URL:

Former U.S. ambassador says Iraq’s potential obscured

By Howard Altman
Published: February 5, 2014 Updated: February 5, 2014 at 09:51 PM
Christopher Hill (2008 AP Photo)

Christopher R. Hill, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, was U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, South Korea, Macedonia, and Poland, a U.S. special envoy for Kosovo, a negotiator of the Dayton Peace Accords, and the chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea from 2005-2009. Currently Dean of the Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver, he will appear at the University of South Florida’s Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies at 6:30 p.m. tonight, for a “wide-ranging discussion on American foreign policy.”

Before his appearance, he spoke with The Tampa Tribune.

Q: Today was another bloody day in Iraq with a string of deadly bombings while the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant controls Fallujah. You once said Iraq had the potential to be “an enormous success.” Do you still believe that?

A: Iraq is sitting on a lot of natural resources that have limitless potential. The problem of course is that the Middle East has undergone a rather historical convulsion since the so-called Arab Spring, or Arab Thing, because no one is sure of what it is. There is a real growth of sectarian violence throughout the region, and is especially dramatic in Syria, without any signs of letting up and it is spilling over into neighboring states. It is not really an issue of whether (Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-) Maliki has done enough Sunni outreach. I submit to you that this is not really an issue of Sunni outreach or the government sharing of power. It is a problem with the Sunni community, in which radical Sunni elements first go after less radical Sunnis, then come after Shi’a.

Q: Last year, the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General reported that the problems of transition in Iraq bode ill for Afghanistan. What’s your takeaway?

A: The lesson learned early on is worth drilling over and over again — that these situations are complex and are rooted very deeply in the landscape and so on. We need to be careful with the idea we can solve a 1300-year-old problem in the case of Sunnis and Shi’a in Iraq with a few years of American occupation. I know that manifests itself in the good-enough mentality, but we need to be more understanding of the reality that not everything depends on us. So when we get into those circumstances, the first think we should be asking ourselves is not how to change it, but rather how did it happen in the first place? When we realized how it happened, we might be a little more modest and not think you can change it overnight.

Q: Should Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad have any role in a post-civil-war nation, should the civil war ever end?

A: My own view is that he cannot play a role in the future for a lot of reasons. One of them is the fact that he has been essentially accused of war crimes, with credible evidence. But to kind of rule him out ahead of time makes a difficult task more difficult. Put aside Assad and work on what kind of political arrangement is effective for the future. ...Don’t get so hung up on elections, get hung on what the governing mechanism will be and leave personalities out until the end.

Q: Turning to North Korea, you once called Kim Jong-un “pathetic.” Do you still feel that way?

A: I think he is a certainly not ready for prime time, you can hear that from anyone living near him, including the Chinese...he is an authoritarian leader in the worst tradition of the North Korean political system and has shown very little interest in reform. Ultimately, he has increased his country’s isolation and has probably created historical difference with China that can’t easily be papered over.

Q: Was he ever a factor when you were negotiating with his father?

A: Not at all. There was a lot of speculation about who would be next, but he was usually not the first choice. He came out of nowhere about six months before his father died to become the heir apparent.

Q: How badly is China behaving these days?

A: I think there is a lot to be concerned about right now with China’s behavior. If they had sat down and decided systematically to upset all their neighbors, they could not have done a better job than what they are doing in the South China Sea.

Q: How concerned are you about China?

A: I am very concerned about what we are seeing in China. It reflects a lot of domestic problems they have. I would not want to have (Chinese Premier) Wen Jiabao’s problems to look at every morning. As much as some people think China will supplant the United States as a world super power, I am not going to sit on a hot stove until that happens. The Chinese have a lot of problems. What worries me and most people most is the idea of some kind of miscalculation — a Chinese warship bumping into a Japanese warship and before you know it you would have problems. I don’t think the Chinese leadership wants such problems, but the rhetoric and nastiness of it all, there has been a lot of uptick recently. I was visiting the Philippines recently and struck by how the Philippines are behaving with respect to the South China Sea. It is a part of the world that bears a lot more watching than it has in the past. Usually, the sort of urgent problems have been in the Middle East, but the South China Sea is getting more urgent.

[email protected]

(813) 259-7629