On June 26, 2010 it was reported in the Iraqi press that the Obama administration would replace the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill. A month before, the story was leaked in the U.S. as well. Hill has had a controversial tenure in Baghdad, and is going to be replaced by a long time Middle Eastern hand James Jeffrey.
Hill’s nomination was a controversial choice by President Obama at the beginning of 2009. He was replacing Ambassador Ryan Crocker who had successfully worked with General David Petraeus during the Surge. Crocker had extensive experience in the Middle East, and developed a good working relationship with the military. Hill too was a long-time diplomat, but all his experience was in Europe and Asia as ambassador to Poland, Macedonia, South Korea, and the lead U.S. representative to the Dayton Accords, which ended the Bosnia War. His last posting was as the Bush administration’s chief negotiator with North Korea. Hill also did not speak Arabic. Those were some of the reasons why his confirmation in the Senate was held up for several months, leaving Iraq without a U.S. ambassador for nearly two months.
Hill’s tenure in Iraq was also criticized. Tom Ricks at his blog The Best Defense reported in September 2009 that Hill and the commanding U.S. general in Iraq Ray Odierno had a strained relationship. The basic disagreement between them involved how much the United States should be involved in Iraqi politics. General Odierno wanted Americans to touch every aspect of Iraq’s government, while Hill wanted a more hands off approach believing that was more appropriate since America was withdrawing from Iraq. For example, General Odierno allegedly wanted the U.S. to play the role of guarantor of Sunnis’ rights in the new Iraq, while Hill disagreed. Despite those stories, Hill and the U.S. embassy staff were deeply involved in the March 2010 parliamentary elections, holding weekly meetings with Iraqi politicians during the drafting of the election law, and the negotiations to form a government after the balloting. Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies agreed that the U.S. needed to shift from a military to a diplomatic approach to Iraq, but thought that Hill and his staff were too caught up on benchmarks like the Iraqi elections that would lead to the U.S. withdrawal rather than building a long-term relationship with Baghdad.
James Jeffrey has been pegged as the new ambassador to Iraq. He is currently the ambassador to Turkey, and has extensive experience in the Middle East and in Iraq. Jeffrey was the deputy assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs and the special adviser to the secretary of state for Iraq in the Bush White House. From 2004-2005 he was the deputy chief of mission and charge d’affaires in Baghdad. He held similar posts in Kuwait, and also served in Germany, Bulgaria, and Tunisia.
While there were many questions about Christopher Hill’s nomination and time in Baghdad, his general approach to Iraq seemed to be rooted in Obama administration policy. When Obama was elected president he said his main priority in Iraq would be withdrawal. That was what Hill appeared to be focused upon as well. While the ambassador was involved in Iraqi events like the March 2010 vote, those seemed to be necessary steps for the Americans to leave behind a stable country. Whether the appointment of James Jeffrey, a diplomat with lots of time dealing with Iraq will make any difference is an open question. He may know more Iraqi officials, and get along with General Odierno, but he will still be following the same approach to the country set by the President.
Alsumaria, “Obama nominates new US Ambassador to Iraq,” 6/26/10
Brose, Christian, “Obama’s Iraq speech: Brought to you by George W. Bush,” Shadow Government, Foreign Policy, 2/28/09
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Cordesman, Anthony, “Observations From a Visit to Iraq,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 6/12/09
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