Like a baseball relief pitcher hoping to preserve a late comeback, veteran diplomat Christopher Hill has one overriding fear as he contemplates being the next ambassador to Iraq.
"I just don't want to screw it up," the nominee told senators Wednesday.
That blunt statement reflects both an admiration for the accomplishments of his predecessor in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, who helped lead a turnaround in the war, and a worry that the gains still could unravel.
Hill's lack of experience in the Middle East had led some Republicans to urge President Barack Obama to reconsider the nomination. Still, Hill sailed through his hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The chairman, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said he was confident Hill was the right person for the job and that the committee would vote on the nomination next week.
Brownback's North Korean concern
Once it reaches the full Senate, the nomination could run into more concerted opposition. Leading it has Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., who accuses Hill of misleading him during congressional testimony last year about pressing North Korea on human rights issues. At the time, Hill was the Bush administration's chief U.S. negotiator in nuclear talks with the reclusive communist nation. Hill called the dispute a misunderstanding with Brownback that, in retrospect, Hill could have done more to resolve earlier.
Addressing the Mideast experience issue, Hill said his years of diplomatic work in the Balkans and as the chief negotiator on North Korea would serve him well in Baghdad.
He mentioned, for example, facing the problem in postwar Kosovo of building dependable police forces.
"When I see some of these problems we've had in Iraq, it does have a sort of `deja-vu-all-over-again' feel to it," Hill said.
Under questioning, Hill said that even though security in Iraq remains fragile he is optimistic it can be maintained as large-scale U.S. troop withdrawals begin early next year. There are about 143,000 U.S. troops there now.
"I think we are in a really crucial phase," he said. "The task of drawing down forces tends to be more difficult than flowing in forces." He stressed that the key will be leaving the Iraqis with a sense of security.
"I think we have the prospect of getting that done," he said.
Hill told the committee that if he is confirmed, he would be set to head to Baghdad the next day.
He said he would be prepared to restart U.S.-Iraqi talks with Iran if the administration decides it could be helpful. "The real problem in the region for Iraq is its ancient neighbor, Iran," Hill said, adding that as ambassador he would work to ensure that the Iranians respect Iraqi sovereignty.
Six years after the U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, Iraq is at a delicate stage of an attempted transition from open warfare to the beginning of political reconciliation and recovery. The U.S. ambassador is at the center of a complex campaign to nudge the Iraqis toward greater stability as they prepare for national elections in December and U.S. troops begin to depart in large numbers.
In deciding on a way ahead for U.S. strategy in Iraq last month, Obama chose to accept U.S. commanders' recommendation that large-scale troop withdrawals wait until after the December election.
The experience question
In response to questions by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., Hill said it is his understanding that Obama is committed to withdrawing all U.S. forces — not just combat troops — from Iraq by the end of 2011, as stated in a security agreement that the Bush administration negotiated with the Iraqi government late last year.
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., told the committee that Hill's experience in handling the North Korean nuclear issue as a regional matter involving Japan, South Korea, China and Russia could serve him well in Iraq. Lugar said success in Iraq will depend increasingly on diplomatic factors such as efforts to cultivate more regional cooperation with Iraq — including with neighbors such as Iran, Syria and Jordan.
Now retired, Crocker was among the State Department's most seasoned and respected Arab specialists. He was ambassador to Pakistan before arriving in Baghdad in March 2007. He also had served in Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon. He was widely credited with creating an unusually effective partnership with Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, who has since been promoted to chief of U.S. Central Command.