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Chris Hill’s farewell tour

Amb. Chris Hill wraps up his 34-year career as a Foreign Service officer this week with a series of speaking events in Washington, as new Baghdad envoy Jim Jeffrey arrives to take over the largest U.S. diplomatic installation in the world. Hill, who has been the lead U.S. official assisting with the evolution of the ...

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Amb. Chris Hill wraps up his 34-year career as a Foreign Service officer this week with a series of speaking events in Washington, as new Baghdad envoy Jim Jeffrey arrives to take over the largest U.S. diplomatic installation in the world.

Hill, who has been the lead U.S. official assisting with the evolution of the Iraqi political system as the transition from a military-dominated to a civilian-led effort, has a clear message for those in the U.S. government that will take up the mission going forward: Patience and perseverance are needed to help Iraq become a successful democracy.

"The problems of that country are severe, but the potential is very great. And I think those of us who are there, for the time that we're there, do our best to make things better and leave things better for our successors," Hill told reporters at the State Department in an "exit interview" style briefing Tuesday.

Amb. Chris Hill wraps up his 34-year career as a Foreign Service officer this week with a series of speaking events in Washington, as new Baghdad envoy Jim Jeffrey arrives to take over the largest U.S. diplomatic installation in the world.

Hill, who has been the lead U.S. official assisting with the evolution of the Iraqi political system as the transition from a military-dominated to a civilian-led effort, has a clear message for those in the U.S. government that will take up the mission going forward: Patience and perseverance are needed to help Iraq become a successful democracy.

“The problems of that country are severe, but the potential is very great. And I think those of us who are there, for the time that we’re there, do our best to make things better and leave things better for our successors,” Hill told reporters at the State Department in an “exit interview” style briefing Tuesday.

The security and political challenges facing Iraq were on full display this week, with a bombing at a military recruiting center in Baghdad killing at least 59 people and the lack of formation of a government following very close elections earlier this year.

“I am concerned that continued delays in the government formation process are contributing to a growing sense of uncertainty in the country,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wrote in a recent report to the Security Council.

Hill, who has been thrust into tough diplomatic situations his entire career, ranging from Bosnia to North Korea, maintains that Iraq is on the road to stability and prosperity, if only the international community can hold the line and keep up its support through the excruciating process.

“Iraq, as I’ve often said, offers no refuge for those in need of instant gratification. It requires you to stay at it. But I do believe there’s some real progress there,” Hill said.

Oil production with international assistance is going up, al Qaeda has diminished capacity and no local support, and the Iraqi military is taking on more complex operations in a more independent way, he said. Hill predicted that Iraqi oil production could rise from about 2 million barrels per day (BPD) today — around what it was before the war — to 8 million BPD in 10 years, which would negate the need for any international assistance.

Hill wouldn’t speculate on whether the current plan to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011 would be revisited, saying only that this was another issue for the Iraqis to decide.

“There needs to be a new Iraqi government. They need to look at the implementation of the current agreement, and they need to look at what they see is necessary in the future after the expiration of the agreement,” he said.

Since neither the coalitions of current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki nor former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi were able to secure anywhere near the 163 parliamentary seats necessary to constitute an outright majority, the various actors will have to get creative in how they share power, possible with an eye to deemphasizing the role of the prime minister going forward, Hill said.

As for Iran, “Whatever role they’re playing, it’s never helpful,” said Hill. He added that the Iranians were hurting their long-term interests by playing a non-constructive role in Iraq, including supplying weapons to the insurgents.

“The Iranians, it seems they don’t understand that in the long run, if they want a good relationship with Iraq — and to put it mildly, they’ve had a very troubled relationship with Iraq… they’re going to have to do a better job of respecting Iraq’s sovereignty.”

Going forward, Hill has two pieces of advice for the Washington policy community: Don’t compare it to Afghanistan and don’t forget about the need to support Iraq when the military leaves.

“Everyone in Washington talks about Afghanistan and Iraq, almost conflating them, like two different countries with the same situation. It’s a very different situation,” he said.

Hill alluded to the fact that Congress is cutting requested funds from the State Department’s budget in Iraq, even though the overall cost of Iraq operations continues to go down as the military exits.

“I think the issue will be more on the resource side, where people need to understand that the overall national-security outlay in Iraq is plummeting as we pull out … And yet we’re having trouble getting some things funded that are so much cheaper than what we have been funding. That is, funding for peace is a lot less than funding for war, and yet we’re having some challenges there.”

Speaking Wednesday morning at the United State Institute of Peace, Hill again struck an optimistic note, predicting that Iraq would be an increasingly important player in the region and the world and would eventually grow out of its structural problems.

“Iraq is unique, but its problems are not unique. There are these problems all over the world and now Iraq can learn from them about how to deal with them,” he said.

Hill also cautioned that it will be a tough slog between now and then, and even if Iraq’s current leaders aren’t ideal, they are the most experienced and therefore the most appropriate people to nurture that country’s nascent democracy.

“Running Iraq is not for amateurs,” he said.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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