By Peter Feaver
The choice of Chris Hill to be the next ambassador to Iraq is an odd one. It is, arguably, one of the two or three most important country ambassadorships we have (you could put Afghanistan and Pakistan on that short list). It is a post where the ability of the ambassador can be dispositive in determining whether U.S. interests are advanced or not.
While all three of the Bush ambassadors were enormously talented individuals, by most accounts the most successful of the three was the last, Ambassador Crocker. He brought not only unrivaled regional experience, but also an ability to work extremely closely and harmoniously with the military commanders. While we never had unity of command in Iraq, with Petraeus-Crocker at least we had something approaching unity of effort.
Enter Chris Hill. He is unquestionably a celebrated U.S. diplomat. He enjoyed good success in the Balkans. He was a tireless negotiator in North Korea, though he had less success and more melodrama to show for that assignment. But he has no Middle East regional expertise and, so far as I can remember, never made a contribution, for good or for ill, on Iraq policy. I realize that from the Obama perspective, his utterly "clean hands" on Iraq may seem like a positive, not a negative. They might argue, furthermore, that he showed in North Korea that he could go from zero-to-100 in a hurry, for there, too, he was handed a critical assignment for which he had no direct expertise.
But does his North Korea record suggest he can "play well with others" sufficiently to match with Odierno what Crocker was able to achieve with Petraeus? For that matter, can he establish a working relationship with Maliki and the other powers-that-be in Iraq that will preserve U.S. influence in a time when U.S. leverage is rapidly decreasing?
The margins in Iraq have always been very thin. The right people, and the right mix of people, can mean the difference between success and failure. President Obama has already shown that he is a risk-taker when it comes to personnel decisions. I hope the choice of Ambassador Hill to be the civilian point-man on Iraq will not be one risk too many.