Ambassador Hill Reminisces About ‘Life on the Frontlines’

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Former U.S. Ambassador Christopher R. Hill made a career out of being in the wrong places at the right times. In his 30-plus years as a Foreign Service Officer, he was a key player in some of the highest-profile geopolitical hotspots on the planet, from Bosnia to Kosovo to North Korea to Iraq. He served as U.S. ambassador in Macedonia, Poland, South Korea and Iraq and was the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs from 2005 until 2009, leading the U.S. delegation to the six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear issue.

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Photo: University of Denver / Wayne Armstrong
Christopher R. Hill

Hill won praise for helping to bring peace to the Balkans in the 1990s but failed to get Iraq to form a unity government during his tenure, setting the stage for an alienating second term for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The respected envoy worked for nearly a dozen secretaries of state and is an unapologetic, bipartisan critic of both George W. Bush’s administration for its reflexive reliance on military interventions and the Obama administration for essentially throwing in the towel in Iraq.

Despite a career of highs and lows, if anyone could provide a candid, inside look at how the State Department mixes it up around the world, it is Hill, and he does just that in his memoir “Outpost: Life on the Frontlines of American Diplomacy.”

We caught up with Hill, who is now dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, to ask him what it was like to be inside a U.S. embassy under siege, how it felt to be on the receiving end of cheap shots from the likes of Dick Cheney and John McCain, and what it takes to be a successful diplomat in an era of social media, among other things.

The Washington Diplomat: You opened the book recalling a bomb that narrowly missed your convoy in Iraq and then an incident from your childhood, in 1961, where your home in Belgrade was vandalized after the CIA reportedly had Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese leader, killed. Did you start with these violent incidents to remind readers that the life of a diplomat can be dangerous?

Ambassador Hill: It’s not just that I wanted to get the book off with a bang. I wanted readers to understand that, as a diplomat, you are out there in dangerous situations sometimes. I didn’t recount every near-miss story I have, but I want people to know that in the Foreign Service, you are facing risks. After I wrote most of the book, we had the Chris Stevens tragedy [the U.S. ambassador who was killed in a firefight in Benghazi, Libya, along with three other Americans in 2012]. So I think Americans probably didn’t need this lesson as much as I had thought when I started writing the book. But a lot of people still probably think that there’s a lot of cookie pushing going on in the Foreign Service and I wanted to stress that there are a lot of other important things going on as well.

The Diplomat: You wrote about how Hollywood depicts Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) cravenly, explaining how local laws don’t allow them to help the parents of abducted children, tourists who get into trouble overseas and so on. And you comment that many Americans perceive FSOs as being more interested in serving other countries’ interests rather than their own. Do you think that perception comes from Hollywood or from politicians or somewhere else?

Hill: The fact is FSOs spend a lot of time overseas. There are some brutal realities overseas, and for many Americans those realities are not so apparent. The main reality is that the U.S. doesn’t control what other countries do — you have to work with them and live with their actions. For many Americans who look at our embassies, which seem like fortresses, it just doesn’t seem like their interests are being represented. Over the years, people have developed an impression of the Foreign Service that isn’t as good as it should be. I wrote the book largely to talk about many of my colleagues.

The Diplomat: Americans who know what the Foreign Service is may not have a great impression of FSOs, but there are also plenty who don’t even know what it is.

Hill: Right. When you say State Department, people say, ‘State Department of what?’

The Diplomat: On the topic of social media, would you allow our ambassadors to tweet as they see fit, or should they be clearing all their communications with Washington?

Hill: You have to trust them to do what’s right but they need a pep talk on what their real jobs are. I’m less interested in having ambassadors develop [Twitter] followers than I’m interested in leaders. We are maybe getting too deeply obsessed with social media. Ambassadors need to help the country understand how Washington thinks but also hear you out. When I see ambassadors having bad relations with their host countries just to score political points back home, it’s distressing….

Some of what you hear today is we want our ambassadors out there tweeting about what terrible people he has to work with, when in fact, what we really need our ambassadors doing is keeping the door open to locals where they serve. I find all this use of social media has the effect of making our embassies trying to compete with people in Washington hurling invectives at some human rights-challenged country. In fact, there are different jobs for different people. The job of being a diplomat overseas is to keep the door open and have dialogue.

The Diplomat: Diplomats overseas have to walk a fine line don’t they? Sometimes the host country government deserves to be condemned. But what happens when you speak out and then the leaders of that country freeze you out or ignore you?

Hill: That’s the point. If our ambassador can’t talk to the local guy in a country, who else is going to? It’s one thing for our ambassadors to go out and swallow all the nonsense the local guy is feeding them; it’s another to be professional enough to keep the door open for dialogue. So we need to be careful about that and make sure we don’t judge our ambassadors by how tough they are in their Tweets.

The Diplomat: Your book obviously came out before the revelations that former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had deleted thousands of emails from a server that she deemed private. But having spent more than 30 years at State, you must have an opinion on this matter. Do you think there’s anything wrong with what she did?

Hill: I don’t have a firsthand view of it but I certainly have never had my own email server in my basement. I do know it’s hard to juggle your personal account and your State Department account. I guess I was surprised but I can’t claim to have any firsthand knowledge of what happened.

The Diplomat: You recounted a visit then-first lady Clinton made to Bosnia back in 1996. On the campaign trail in 2008, she described running to avoid sniper fire and then had to backtrack when the video showed her calm arrival. You wrote that she wanted to spend more time with some children on the runway who greeted her with flowers but then you concluded this section by saying, “The threat of snipers seemed to be all most people could remember.” I wonder if Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) or former Vice President Dick Cheney or one of the other politicians whom you were harder on in the book had done the same thing, would you have been as charitable in recalling this incident?

Hill: It’s complicated. I was simply pointing out that sometimes people remember things differently. It doesn’t mean you can point to this as a deep character flaw. I think if you read the book carefully, I point out that she seemed very interested in Iraq until she wasn’t. I don’t think I was overly generous to her and I was relatively kind to almost everyone else, with the possible exception of Dick Cheney. And McCain was not very nice at times. He uses that nice, mournful tone in public, but in private, he can be very nasty.

The Diplomat: You recounted some pretty rude behavior on his part in the book but Cheney was even harder on you before you were confirmed as ambassador to Iraq. [Hill was a surprise choice to be America’s envoy to Baghdad and was criticized by many Republicans for his lack of Middle East experience.]

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Photo: Simon & Schuster

Hill: If you wonder why some FSOs would rather live in a country that’s off the radar screen than go to a hotspot, it’s easy to understand why. Politicians can take that kind of abuse but I’m not a politician. When I get attacked by [then-Sen.] Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) for not doing something he wanted me to do at the [North Korea] six-party talks, as if I’m merrily running my own foreign policy, you know, it’s hard to take.

The Diplomat: You had a private meeting with McCain during your Iraq confirmation process, where he was angry and downright rude toward you, correct?

Hill: He was, he was. Welcome to the world of John McCain. I didn’t understand this at first, and I should have, but there were a lot of people who had an investment in maintaining that the war in Iraq was already won. Therefore, they wanted to say that if anything went awry, it should be laid at President Obama’s doorstep — and, in particular, his decision to send me, this ignorant, neophyte ambassador there. I know a lot about the world and this idea that I didn’t understand Iraq because I had never served there before was very curious in my mind. People asked me about Cheney’s not very kind words about me. I told them, if he had a problem with me, he should have walked down the hall and talked to his boss and my boss, rather than waiting four years to put it in his book.

The Diplomat: You wrote about your kids, Nathaniel, Amy and Clara, in the book. And you grew up as a Foreign Service brat. How hard was it for you and how hard was it for your kids to grow up overseas, moving from post to post?

Hill: It was somehow easier when I was a kid. I never had a sense that I was losing out on things [by being overseas]. I always felt I was the luckiest kid my age to be able to see all these places that none of the other kids had been to. Ironically, Facebook and all that have made kids overseas feel like they are missing out on some experiences back home. It’s very hard today to raise children and make them feel at home in these very foreign environments. My kids were very positive about it, but I note that none of them have followed in my footsteps. They feel that the Foreign Service, to some extent, pulled them away from some things. That said, my kids had tremendous experiences — even my daughter, who was in the basement of the embassy in Skopje when we thought an angry mob was going to burn the place down.

The Diplomat: I’ve seen the pictures of how that angry mob [of pro-Serbian protesters] torched cars and tried to ransack the embassy in Skopje back in ’99 [after NATO launched airstrikes on Serb-controlled Yugoslavia], but tell me what it was like to be down in the basement while that was going on. You must have been very nervous.

Hill: I was nervous. You have a sense of responsibility for those lives. I was worried. The most important quality of a leader is to impart a sense of optimism to the others, a sense that we’ll be OK. That’s what I tried to do. After it was over, I took a deep breath and couldn’t believe we’d gone through that, including my 11-year-old daughter. We tried to keep busy but I worried about fire and if we could escape if the embassy was being burned.

The Diplomat: So you didn’t see the 2001 conflict in Macedonia [between the ethnic Albanian minority and majority Macedonians] coming? You didn’t mention it in your book.

Hill: Macedonia was always a question mark in history. I knew it was dicey. I took the job understanding that this was a crucial part of the Balkans. But once you get into crisis mode, it’s hard to stop. My term was up, but I wanted to move to a bigger post and Poland was enticing.

The Diplomat: You served in both South Korea and Poland and you wrote that you saw South Korea’s success coming but you couldn’t predict the same for Poland.

Hill: South Korea never had a totalitarian government; they never had a government that was part of a broader communist movement that essentially claimed that history was over. I saw Poland as trapped in this system and there was no way out. South Korea had an authoritarian system but it wasn’t a system that claimed to have all the answers. I was much more optimistic about them, and I was right to be optimistic, but I underestimated the Poles.

The Diplomat: You reopened the U.S. Embassy in Tirana after it was closed for almost 50 years. What was it like to re-establish our diplomatic presence there?

Hill: The first thing you felt was this tremendous responsibility representing the United States. All their hopes and dreams were caught up in the United States. No one in Albania had ever been to the U.S. before but of course they had heard about us. People really listened. We didn’t want to disappoint anyone. I tried to reduce expectations. I gave a speech comparing us to a family that was separated and was finally reuniting and I could see people tearing up. I kind of chickened out on trying to give people a sense of realism. It was a huge responsibility — when people have their hopes and dreams in you, you don’t want to disappoint them.

The Diplomat: Albania has made much slower progress than Poland. Are you at all surprised or disappointed that its economy hasn’t taken off in the way Poland’s has in recent years?

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Credit: State Department photo by Eric W. Brooks / U.S .Embassy Baghdad
From right, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is greeted by newly arrived U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Christopher R. Hill during her visit to Baghdad on April 25, 2009, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen looks on.

Hill: I was there in 1991. If you had told me that in 20 years they would be NATO members and that they would have a tourism sector at all I would have rejoiced. Yes, it takes some countries longer than others, but Albania is going in the right direction. In the context of Albanian history, they aren’t doing badly in the last quarter century. When I was there, the only roads that were there were two-lane roads and people walked in the middle of the street so you had to drive slow. Cars were banned; religion was banned; there was no real legal system; there was no economy [under longtime dictator Enver Hoxha]. It was a country that didn’t have a chance really. It was the North Korea of Europe. Anyone who spent five minutes there knew it would take a very long time to bring change to this place.

The Diplomat: You spent a big chunk of your career in the Balkans — Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Bosnia. All of these places are certainly more secure now than they were in the ’90s and early 2000s, but poverty, unemployment and bad governance are still huge problems in all those countries. We have peace in these countries but prosperity is a much longer-term project, right?

Hill: Peace and prosperity go in tandem. You won’t get prosperity if people are shooting at each other. It’s one of these things, prosperity takes longer than Americans are prepared to spend in these places.

The Diplomat: The world powers have sort of forgotten the Balkans post 9/11. I think your mentor, Richard Holbrooke, had it right when he said that the world’s interest in this region wouldn’t last.

Hill: If you consider the fact that you could stick all of Kosovo’s population in a part of Beijing, it helps to put the region in context. People in the Balkans have learned the lesson that they can’t expect us to do everything for them. Washington has always been a bit of a peewee soccer team. Everyone hangs around the ball. Once the ball moved over to Iraq, it was hard to get people to focus on other places, like the Balkans.

The Diplomat: You recounted the fact that a lot of FSOs didn’t want to serve in Iraq. Do you think that the Foreign Service assignments process should be more like the military, where it’s just shut up and go where we send you?

Hill: The current system has flaws but it is basically the right approach. You ask people where they would like to go, give them a chance to have input and then put in some parameters in terms of doing hardship assignments. Yes, there are people who game the system but I think overall it usually results in people having some nice assignments and some tough assignments. I found that forcing people to go to Iraq didn’t necessarily help advance our cause in Iraq. Iraq distorted the whole Foreign Service assignment process.

The Diplomat: And is that still a factor, or has that dynamic disappeared in recent years?

Hill: It’s not the same as before. I think that they aren’t insisting that people who don’t want to go there have to go any more. It’s a much-downsized mission now. We had something like 22 Provincial Reconstruction Teams, which were like little consulates. Those are all gone. People aren’t being dragooned into those assignments now. The whole thing was just trying to show the military that we supported the mission by turning this into our biggest embassy.

The Diplomat: Now that you are in academia, I assume you encounter plenty of students who want to join the Foreign Service. But are they prepared to go to places like Iraq and Afghanistan?

Hill: I think they realize the reality of where they might be sent. I’m not worried about the next generation of diplomats at all.


About the Author

Dave Seminara (@DaveSem) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on August 27, 2015