Outpost: Life on the Frontlines of American Diplomacy
The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq
PublicAffairs, 2015, 400 pp., $28
There is an incident recounted by Christopher Hill in his memoir of life in the Foreign Service, Outpost, that says much both about his gift for sharp observation and about the self-delusion at the core of U.S. policy in Iraq. Sent in 2009 to be Ambassador to Iraq as America was disengaging militarily, Hill was paying a visit to Nasiriya. It had proven easier and more effective in Iraq to spread money than democracy, and General David Petraeus had wisely taken advantage of this by (literally) buying some breathing room for a U.S. withdrawal. The “surge” had helped as well. Now the troops were leaving and the pallets of cash that once filled Baghdad warehouses and funded the Anbar Sunni Awakening were disappearing. Hill’s job, as it had been often before in his career, was to hammer home this unwelcome message, which in the case of Nasiriya meant telling local officials that the U.S. government would not be financing the international airport they were convinced would lure tourists to their featureless patch of desert. Still, as Hill describes it, he had not come entirely empty-handed. On the contrary, he had brought glad tidings of fresh relationships with Iraqi universities. What followed is worth quoting from this most engaging memoir:
The Iraqis gave me that studied look of indifference, one that I suspect they had perfected over the centuries, reserved for pitiable foreigners who do not quite understand that what they really want are things and money, not forms of cooperation.
Chris Hill, like his father Charles before him, was a career Foreign Service Officer, and one of the most successful of his generation. The old cliché has it that a diplomat is someone sent abroad to lie for his country. These days, lying—like most other governmental functions—is centralized in Washington; a career Ambassador in the field is lucky to find out about the latest prevarications before the local officials with whom he must deal. So a more apt description might be this: A diplomat, particularly a career diplomat like Hill, is a deniable individual sent to a dangerous place to deliver a disagreeable message. The title of this memoir says it all: An outpost is a lonely place, dangerously near the front lines, and likely to be abandoned (along with its commander) at the first hint of trouble. Hill often found himself in such places. For a fellow former career Ambassador like me, the resulting sense of being on your own with no one at your back provides the emotional resonance and narrative spine of the book.
The author of Outpost certainly experienced more than his share of dangerous places and disagreeable messages. His Foreign Service family was bombed out of the family residence in Belgrade when he was a boy, and later evacuated from Haiti after his father was briefly kidnapped by Duvalier’s Ton Ton Macoutes. As a diplomat himself, Hill came under various forms of fire in the Balkans, sheltered with his staff in the basement of our Embassy in Macedonia while rioters sacked and burned it, and barely escaped a roadside bomb in Iraq. The latter incident occurred on the way back from that fruitless meeting in Nasiriya, almost as if meant to deliver the real Iraqi response to Hill’s message that the U.S. gravy train was departing and that henceforth the squabbling tribes of Iraq would be left to their own devices. We had broken the old Iraq, and—as Colin Powell famously predicted—we had come to own it. Now we were giving it back, ready or not.
The meeting in Nasiriya was hardly the first time Chris Hill served as harbinger of ill omen. He had been a deputy to Richard Holbrooke in the negotiations leading to the Dayton Agreement of 1995, which brought temporary peace to the Balkans. When war flared again in 1998, with Serb mass killings of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, Hill was sent to negotiate a ceasefire between Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic and the head of the Kosovar Liberation Army, Ibrahim Rugova. Hill’s description of negotiating his way through KLA checkpoints while hostilities raged around him should be enough to dispel forever the image of professional diplomats as a cloistered, canapé-gobbling elite.
During George W. Bush’s second term, Hill became chief U.S. delegate to the Six Power Talks designed to end the North Korean nuclear program. He no longer had Dick Holbrooke, “Le Bulldozer” as the French dubbed him, to run interference. And while Hill claims that he had the full backing of President Bush and Condoleezza Rice, there is a sense in these pages that he felt uncomfortably on his own. Hill had to deal not only with the obstinacy of the North Korean regime, but with criticism from what he describes as a neoconservative cabal within the Administration, led by Vice President Cheney, who disapproved of talking with dictators and “conducted his own foreign policy, regardless of the President’s wishes.”
All this and much else is recounted here with a journal keeper’s granular detail, invaluable to the specialist and redeemed for others by the author’s flashes of insight and wit. There are respectful and affectionate portraits of the diplomats who served as Hill’s mentors: Lawrence Eagleburger, Robert Frasure and, especially, the volcanic Holbrooke. All are gone now, along with the tradition of pragmatic, professional diplomacy they represented; they live again in these pages.
Both missions—Serbia and North Korea—were ultimately failures. The North Koreans balked at effective verification, and diplomacy yielded to NATO bombs in the effort to oust Milosevic. Hill emerged with a reputation as a skilled and tenacious negotiator, but also with the taint that seems always to attach to those who carry on negotiations, however necessary, with murderous regimes. It put him in the crosshairs of the righteous in Washington who want no truck with evildoers or, for that matter, with a State Department they view as the evildoers’ Washington lobby.
Then came Iraq. His appointment as Ambassador was a surprise, particularly to him. Hill had become a controversial figure. He had never served in the Middle East and spoke no Arabic, but these facts didn’t strike either Hillary Clinton or Hill as disqualifying. More important seems to have been Hill’s reputation for competence in difficult situations, and his lack of any prior association with an increasingly unpopular war. Hill quotes Clinton as telling him to “wrest” control of relations with Iraq back from the military, which had been running the place like a fiefdom since the American invasion in March 2003. It may have been just an offhand remark, but Hill seems to have taken it seriously. In any case, it framed his task in exactly the wrong terms.
The Secretary seems to have given Hill no other guidance—nothing about our strategy or tactics in Iraq, or what outcome we should work to achieve. She came to Iraq the day after Hill himself arrived, dazzled the Iraqis (and Hill) with her command, puzzled them with one of her trademark community meetings, then left, never to return. Hill doesn’t say so, but there’s a sense in these pages that Clinton was more than happy to disassociate herself from so unpromising a place.
In any case, Hill set about the task of wresting as instructed, but in a manner that seems, even by his own account, unnecessarily confrontational and petty. He brought in loyalists, sidelined experts like his deputy, the widely respected Arabist Robert Ford (whose name doesn’t even appear in Outpost), changed office assignments, sent non-Americans packing from the chancellery, and made sure that the trinkets set before Iraqis at meetings included not just the usual Army mementos but some remembrance from the Embassy as well. He also caused grass to be planted in front of the chancellery building; the grass seems to have become a symbol of everything the military found objectionable about his tenure.
Hill describes his embassy staff (with some exceptions) as overstuffed with press-ganged incompetents in a misguided attempt to impress the military with the State Department’s commitment to the mission. That sort of opinion is bound to be reciprocated by those it describes, and by several reports it was. Hill writes that the military, after six years in charge, had difficulty letting go, but equal difficulty in coming to terms with reality, a point he seems to have made, repeatedly, to them. None of this made him popular. Reports soon surfaced in Washington of strains between Hill and the military commander in Iraq, Ray Odierno. Hill is at pains to counter them. He writes that Odierno denied “repeatedly” that he was the source of the rumors, and adds: “I never had a reason not to believe him.”
The hedging double negative in that sentence is telling. In fact, he had plenty of reason, as he must have known at the time, and as Odieno’s political adviser, Emma Sky, recounts in some detail in her memoir, The Unraveling.
Like Hill’s book, The Unraveling is a virtual day-to-day memoir, in Sky’s case of her service in Iraq on behalf of Her Majesty’s Foreign Office. She arrived in Iraq in June of 2003, seconded there by the FCO for some unspecified duty; the occupation was three months old. Within a few weeks she found herself “Governorate Coordinator” in Kirkuk.
The initial U.S. narrative about Iraq had already collapsed; there was no government in waiting, no shadow opposition military force, no readiness of various sectarian groups to pull together—nothing, in truth, but a failed state tipped over into anarchy by the American invasion. Most of all, there was no Plan B. Ideologues had created the war; refusing to consider a backup plan was how they professed their faith. In the resulting confusion, someone with cultural and language expertise like Sky quickly became invaluable—first, to the commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Kirkuk, and eventually to Ray Odierno, “General O” as she refers to him.
Sky had opposed the war. She writes, with the sort of moral grandiosity that appears often in these pages, that she arrived in Iraq determined to “apologize to the Iraqis for the War.” Still, she came greatly to admire the American soldiers who fought it, especially Odierno. When his name appears in these pages, she tends to gush. He was “so big, so confident, so decisive and so determined. I was in awe of him.”
Sky’s awe sometimes overwhelms her objectivity, as she herself seems to be aware. Odierno was, after all, the author of the very aggressive, kick-down-the-door tactics used to suppress dissent in Iraq that Sky had so strongly opposed and that helped turn the population against the Coalition. She describes how a key element of her job became placating various Iraqi political and tribal leaders whose relatives had been arrested, beaten up, or shot by Coalition forces. But somehow none of this dampened her admiration for Odierno—on the contrary. At one point, she tells of half-jokingly remarking to the General during a helicopter ride that he had probably killed more Iraqis than Saddam. Odierno threatens in response to have her thrown out of the helicopter. But the incident is treated in the memoir as just another example of the leaden, good-old-boy jocularity that anyone who lives in a military culture—especially a woman—is forced to endure. The fact that she remained in his good graces despite occasional comments like that indicates that he valued her services highly.
Odierno used Sky as emissary to Iraqis of various ethnic groups and political persuasions and eventually as liaison with the Embassy, where she sat in the Ambassador’s staff meeting. By her account she went everywhere and met everyone, and there are interesting profiles here of Jerry Bremer, Ryan Crocker, Kurdish leader Jamal Talabani, Nouri al-Maliki, Ayad Allawi, and many others. She was in the welcoming parties for visiting U.S. neoconservatives as well, and she provides far from flattering descriptions of a snide Paul Wolfowitz, an overbearing Donald Rumsfeld, and a particular obnoxious individual she habitually identifies only as “Black Will”, but who will be instantly recognizable as former NSC Deputy Bob Blackwill to anyone ever forced to deal with him.
By the fateful year 2009, when Hill arrived in Baghdad, Sky was an old hand. She had lived through the various stages of U.S. involvement in Iraq, from the initial optimism through the transition to Iraqi control, the civil war, and the “surge.” She had been embedded with troops under fire, and by general consent had developed relationships with Iraqis, especially the Kurds, that no one else in the Coalition could match. Odierno, now the overall military commander in Iraq, had extended to her the informal protocol rank of “Ambassador”, which aptly describes how he employed her services.
With that title appears to have come a certain imperiousness. The pronoun “we” begins to creep into discussions of Odierno’s decision making. She describes herself as chewing out a National Guard soldier for a lapse in security. Her access to the commanding general, she writes, created a good deal of resentment in his command, and provoked not-so-veiled threats from other staffers. Since she retained the General’s favor, however, these threats were hollow. She’s also frank about her own resentment of the new American Ambassador, who, she thought, presumed much but knew little, and who—not incidentally—soon booted her out of her office in the chancellery. The dislike was mutual; Hill provides an unflattering description of an outspoken British woman plaguing his life, although he can never quite bring himself to mention her by name.
Sky was perhaps not as close to Odierno as she had been. She was now in the Green Zone, he at Camp Victory. But she was still close enough to know his thinking about the new Ambassador. The general tried, she says, to make the relationship work. He was as anxious as anyone to make “civilianization” in Iraq a success. But Hill had “poisoned” the atmosphere. Soon, as she describes it, Odierno was back in Washington complaining to Hillary Clinton about the disarray at Embassy Baghdad under Hill. If Sky is to be believed, there were few in Washington with Iraqi connections to whom Odierno didn’t complain. She recalls Odierno coming out of a meeting with Hill in disgust, claiming Hill had said Iraq was not ready for democracy, that Iraq needed a Shi‘a strong man, and that “Maliki is our man.” Odierno thought, she writes, that all the Coalition’s effort and sacrifice in Iraq would go for nothing if Maliki gained a second term as Prime Minister.
Needless to say, Hill’s description in Outpost of his position is very different. But he does write that Maliki, for all his faults, was the only Iraqi politician capable of forming a coalition after the 2010 elections. He quotes a former mentor as saying that when a “junkyard dog” of a politician is needed, we shouldn’t expect that he will sit in our laps. The upshot was that Sky, delegated by Odierno, attempted to build a coalition supportive of the former Prime Minister Allawi at the same time that Hill was trying to reconcile the various factions in Iraq and in Washington to the inevitability of Maliki.
If that were not awkward enough, while the Americans bickered and dithered, Qassim Suleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Qods Force, brought Iraqi Shi‘a leaders to Tehran and persuaded them to unite behind Maliki. Sky implies that confusion in American ranks, which she attributes largely to Hill, was an element in the stalemate that opened the door to Iranian influence, a stalemate that would only be resolved when the President ordered Joe Biden to throw the U.S. government’s weight behind Maliki—not because Hill recommended it (he was gone from Iraq by then), and not because anyone thought it the ideal option, but because some resolution was politically necessary. Maliki was to prove a disastrous choice.
What conclusion can be drawn from these dueling biographies? The United States invaded Iraq in the service of a narrative and spent the next decade attempting to turn that narrative into reality. The narrative spoke of a democratically inclined Iraqi government in waiting, of a potent and multisectarian security force requiring only training and weapons, and of a population willing to overcome ethnic, sectarian, and tribal divisions in the interests of democracy. All of this was purest invention. By 2009, when Hill arrived in Iraq, the authors of the narrative had long since been discredited, but the narrative itself had grown stronger as the cost in lives and treasure grew. Cognitive dissonance was alive and well amid the ruins, destruction, and death.
We had finally managed to bring some measure of stability to the warring tribes of Iraq with a combination of money and things—and sophisticated military force. Now, we prayed the political order we had forced on Iraqis would somehow be self-sustaining—not because that outcome was likely, but because otherwise the whole enterprise would be revealed to all as a futile, unredeemed, and meaningless waste. The next steps were elections, a new Iraqi government, and “normalizing” the U.S.-Iraqi relationship. That was the process Hill was sent to Iraq to oversee.
He brought fresh eyes to the problem; they were the eyes of a realist from a long line of realists. He had no stake in the fiction of a multisectarian and democratic Iraq, so he was free to point out what he considered some hard truths, among them that our intervention had had the effect of transferring power from Sunni to Shi‘a, and that the Shi‘a had no intention of giving any real power back to the Sunnis in the interests of national comity. The best we could hope for now was the emergence of a somewhat milder and more inclusive version of the sectarian- and tribal-based autocracy we had come to Iraq to overthrow. That meant a new strong man, and there was, Hill thought, no real alternative to Maliki.
No wonder Hill and Odierno pulled in opposite directions. Odierno, by now more reflective, had become the keeper of the narrative flame, with Sky as his torchbearer. Perhaps a wiser or more adaptable diplomat than Hill would have understood that those who had fought the battle required one final effort to salvage more than mere stability from all the sacrifice and blood that had gone before. Pragmatism argued otherwise, but pragmatism is not always a virtue. He might have understood that any remaining hope depended on a concerted effort of U.S. civilian and military leadership, and that he was fated to be the junior member in this partnership, the “wingman”, as Petraeus had patronizingly dubbed Hill’s predecessor, Ryan Crocker. Crocker had been quietly effective in that role. But Iraq seems to have confounded Hill, just as it confounded the country he represented. What had begun for the U.S. government in confusion and tragedy was now destined to end the same way.
Hill served out the year he had promised Clinton, and a few months more. He wasn’t asked to stay. Back in Washington, on his way to an academic job in Colorado, Clinton bestowed the thanks of a grateful nation briefly and “between meetings.” “She had other things to do”, he notes. He records her as expressing wonderment that Maliki had won a second term; then she was gone. Hill offers a final defense of Maliki; it was not Maliki’s failure to reach out to Sunnis that sparked ISIS, Hill writes, but the indecisive response of Western leaders to the revolution in Syria from which ISIS sprang. He ends by condemning both the “shameful” effort of neoconservatives to shift the blame for the disaster in the Middle East, and the over caution and confusion of the Obama Administration which compounded the error.
Outpost will serve as an excellent primer for those considering a career in the Foreign Service, and the political, moral, and physical dangers that the profession imposes. It is also a cautionary tale for those who wish to one day be an Ambassador. If you achieve that goal, dear reader, your commission will inform you that you are the senior American in the country to which you are assigned—the personal representative of the President. Don’t take it too seriously. Any real power you have will be limited and transactional. Most of the time, if you are doing your job, your message to Washington will be an unwelcome dose of reality. You will get no end of advice, but very little support; successes will be claimed by Washington, failures attributed to you. You will be, in a phrase, very much on your own. And when you’re done, all you can expect (at best) is a brief meeting with the Secretary of State, who will invariably be “between meetings.” Don’t be surprised; you won’t be the first. In the immortal words of Harry Truman: If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.