Outpost: Life on the Frontlines of American Diplomacy
By Christopher R. Hill
Simon & Schuster, 448 pages
The Foreign Service constitutes the permanent workforce of American foreign policy; its members populate our embassies and State Department bureaus. Every year a select few rise to the top to become ambassadors and run divisions at Foggy Bottom. Christopher Hill had perhaps the most successful foreign-service career of any officer of his time, serving in key positions over the past 15 years and dealing with hot spots as various as North Korea and Iraq. Now he has written his memoirs, and Outpost is a wonderfully instructive book, though not for reasons Hill might hope. Unintentionally, the book exposes not only Hill’s own profound flaws as a diplomat and bureaucrat but also those of the State Department in which he toiled for 30 years. The arrogant, self-centered, and ultimately ineffectual mindset that dominates Foggy Bottom is on full display as well. Indeed, only in the State Department could a senior official carry out blunders like Hill’s and still be considered a brilliant public servant; and perhaps only a foreign-service officer like Hill could look back on the disastrous trail he has left behind and see nothing but success.
Hill joined the State Department in 1977. His first overseas assignment was at the U.S. embassy in Belgrade, then a backwater, before moving to the equally unpromising post of “secretary of economic affairs” at the embassy in Seoul. When Tito’s Yugoslavia broke apart, however, his early years in Belgrade and knowledge of Serbo-Croatian came in handy. Hill’s big break came when he became deputy to Assistant Secretary of State to European and Canadian Affairs Richard Holbrooke in negotiating the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995. This brought an end to the war in Bosnia and gave Hill the reputation of a brilliant negotiator.
Hill does have the virtue of being upfront about his likes and dislikes in Outpost, especially his dislikes. He dislikes soldiers who think that there are military solutions to armed conflict. He is particularly disdainful of General David Petraeus and deeply critical of anyone who thinks the 2006–07 troop surge and counterinsurgency campaign made any significant contribution to ending the war in Iraq. In Hill’s opinion, “counterinsurgency and the surge” were simply “tools” for perpetuating an American occupation in Iraq, and “to realize a very ideological (and frankly warlike) agenda as to how America can always get its way in the world.”
Hill also dislikes neoconservatives, “the aggressive, America-as-empire group of foreign-policy specialists” that is led, in his telling, by three officials of the George W. Bush administration: UN Ambassador John Bolton, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith (whom he calls “the stupidest man in the world”), and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, of whom Hill says, “he rarely encountered a problem in the world that couldn’t be solved by dropping a few bombs.” Hill complains that the “neocons” did not “have the good manners or common decency to admit their mistake” in invading Iraq. That is an interesting take on Hill’s part, since it’s also true that Hill lacks the manners or decency to admit his mistakes, which were doozies.
That includes his stint as U.S. ambassador to Iraq following the critical 2010 election. Petraeus had left the country with more stability than it had known since before Desert Storm, and a new government under Ayad Allawi, a secular-minded Shia who also enjoyed Sunni support, was in the offing. But the sitting prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, dug in his heels and refused to give up his post. Hill, the supposed master negotiator, failed to budge him; eventually he and the Obama administration gave in and Maliki began a second term that escalated Sunni–Shia tensions to the brink of civil war—and opened the door to the rise of ISIS.
Hill, of course, assumes none of the blame for the disaster that’s still unfolding in that unhappy country. Still the ultimate test of the Hill approach to American foreign policy didn’t happen in Iraq but in North Korea.
In October 2002, the People’s Democratic Republic of North Korea publicly admitted what experts, intelligence agents, and Defense Department officials (including the dreaded neoconservatives) had known all along: North Korea had been cheating for years on past agreements to suspend its nuclear-weapon program.
The Bush administration was heavily engaged in Afghanistan and about to become engaged in Iraq. It couldn’t afford another foreign-policy crisis. So while Vice President Dick Cheney and others wanted the United States to force North Korea to terminate its nuclear program forthwith, by force if necessary, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice was more inclined to listen to senior State Department officials who were inclined to discount the danger. The North Koreans held out against further negotiations in the hope that John Kerry would win the presidency in 2004. When Bush was reelected, newly minted Secretary of State Rice handed the problem off to Christopher Hill.
That choice hinged on his reputation as the man who got Slobodan Milosevic to the peace table. But in fact it was NATO air strikes, not Hill’s and Richard Holbrooke’s skills, that convinced the Serbian president to throw in the towel and sign the deal in Dayton. A few years later, his dealings with the Serbs to end the genocide in Kosovo were a signal failure until U.S. air strikes again came once more to Hill’s rescue.
In Hill’s mind, military force or the threat of force bears little or no relation to failure or success in diplomacy. Like many diplomats, he sees military action and diplomacy as inhabiting entirely separate worlds, with diplomacy being inherently superior. North Korea offered the perfect opportunity to prove his point. Military action against Pyongyang was off the table; the question was what Hill would make of the moment.
The answer: not much. Hill’s strategy was to throw North Korea every possible concession in order to get it to agree to suspend its nuclear program—because he failed to grasp that no concession, not even lifting trade sanctions, was as important to Pyongyang’s Stalinist elite as getting a nuclear weapon. So he offered to allow North Korea to resume building nuclear reactors, even though the regime would only want them to generate the materiel for nuclear weapons—and after it had actually stopped building two light-water reactors.
He ignored North Korea’s test firing of seven ballistic missiles in July 2006. The United States did timidly point out that the launches violated yet another moratorium North Korea had agreed to. But as Hill remarks in Outpost, “In the absence of any negotiating process, we could not have really expected such a moratorium to hold.” Then why insist on an agreement you know the opposite party has no intention to carry out?
The next North Korean provocation was an actual nuclear test in October 2006. Again a blatant violation of prior agreements, and again Hill took it in his stride; in Outpost he suggests the test was probably “a fizzle,” but he got Rice to agree that provocation meant it was time to get down to a face-to-face meeting with the North Koreans. That was itself a reward to Pyongyang, which was in effect dealing with the United States as an equal.
In November 2006, Hill sat down with the North Koreans for the first time. As he recounts, they agreed to return to the negotiating table with the United States and four other nations: China, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. What Hill does not say is that, as Michael Rubin details in his book Dancing with the Devil, he also offered to cut North Koreans a much bigger deal, including striking its name from Washington’s Trading with the Enemy List and the government’s State Sponsors of Terrorism List—even though North Korea was still supplying weapons to rogue governments such as Syria and Iran.
This was a momentous concession, since it involved undercutting an actual ally, Japan. Over the years Japan had seen a number of its children kidnapped by North Korean agents and whisked away to be raised in North Korea; the still unresolved issue of Japanese kidnapping victims was the main reason why North Korea was on the State Sponsor list. Now with Hill’s urging, not only did North Korea come off the State Sponsor of Terrorism list, but the Treasury Department agreed to drop all sanctions against Banco Delta Asia, North Korea’s main source for money-laundering and foreign exchange.
But, as Hill tells the story, the World Bank refused to play along. It insisted on keeping Banco Delta Asia on its sanctions list. Hill, Rice, and Hadley were unhappy with this turn. As with the issue of Japanese kidnapped victims, many of whom remained unidentified to this day, “There was a time to make one’s point and a time to move on,” as Hill puts it in Outpost. Hill describes for several pages the tortured effort he and the White House had to go through to convince the World Bank to let Banco Delta Asia conduct its nefarious business as usual, completely ignoring the irony that World Bank bureaucrats were actually being tougher than our own government with North Korea.
Indeed, many in the government, and even in the State Department, thought that opening negotiations with Pyongyang in this way was a mistake. Robert Joseph, who had convinced Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi to surrender his nuclear-weapons program in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, was highly skeptical. Hill dismissed his fears; in his mind, Joseph typified the main Bush-administration attitude toward North Korea, meaning that Joseph “viewed talking to North Koreans about as enthusiastically as talking to the devil” and “never saw a problem” which he didn’t “want to use some form of coercion to solve.”
In January 2007, the formal deal to return North Korea to the Six Party Talks was announced. The New York Times and other media outlets praised it as a major diplomatic triumph. In reality, it was the North Koreans who had triumphed, for Hill had conceded that they could now keep the nuclear weapons they already had. The goal had shifted to keeping Pyongyang from enriching any more uranium and to dismantling its nuclear facilities, although no deadline was set for when. When a deadline was set later and North Korea missed it, Hill voided the deadline.
A new joint statement was issued in February 2007, containing more concessions from the United States and more promises from Pyongyang. North Korea agreed to shut down its nuclear plant at Yongbyon, take all necessary disabling measures for shutting down their entire nuclear program, and allow international inspectors to return.
“I retired to my room,” Hill breathlessly recalls. “I pondered how long it had taken to get this far, and if I really had the stomach to stay with this much longer.” But in his telling, it had not been the North Koreans who had made the past several months miserable. It was “the beating I was taking within the administration at the hands of its neoconservatives,” who considered Hill’s negotiations little more than appeasement and the North Korean promises meaningless.
Hill assumed he had had the last word on his critics on June 26, 2007, when the Yongbyon reactor was shut down at last. His final coup de théâter, and the media’s, came in 2008 when the North Koreans blew up the reactor’s main tower: CNN broadcasted the entire event live.
It was in fact the final victory of symbol over substance in Hill’s disastrous diplomatic course. North Korea’s declaration of the “termination” of its nuclear program, including ending its uranium-enrichment program, turned out to be a transparent tissue of lies. In April 2009, North Korea announced it was pulling out of the Six Party Talks and resuming its enrichment program to enhance its nuclear deterrent—as well as throwing out all international inspectors.
The North Koreans had never been serious about inspectors and verification: Why would they have been when they had Christopher Hill working to prevent any pressure being brought to bear that might dissuade Pyongyang it couldn’t put off the United States and United Nations forever, and keep their nuclear-weapons program intact?
Finally, after four years and more than 40 trips, Hill concluded that “we could not go forward with what we had in hand from” the North Koreans. He headed back to Washington—but not, he tells us, with any sense of defeat or disappointment.
Why? Because he was now convinced everyone would know it was North Korea, not the United States, that was to blame for the failure. “The U.S. reputation in Asia has been transformed,” in his own opinion, especially in his old stomping ground of South Korea. Indeed, for the first time in the presidential election of 2007, “the U.S. relationship was not an issue and no candidate employed anti-Americanism.”
So there it is, the ultimate goal of diplomacy on the Christopher Hill model, or that of Obama and John Kerry in the case of Iran, which is closely following the pattern of Hill’s negotiations with North Korea. It’s not to prevent a rogue nation from gaining a nuclear weapon or halting nuclear proliferation; it’s not protecting ourselves or allies from the depredations of vicious regimes like those in Pyongyang and Tehran, let alone protecting their own people; it’s certainly not advancing U.S. national interests.
It is, instead, the desperate desire to be well thought of by the “international community.” Hill and denizens of the State Department desperately want the United States to be the Most Popular Nation rather than the most powerful, even at the cost of our strategic interests; they primarily see their job as forwarding that agenda. Unfortunately, they found many in the Bush as well as the Obama administration who were inclined to agree. What Hill wrought in North Korea was best summed up by, yes, John Bolton: “It sends exactly the wrong signal to would-be proliferators around the world: If we hold out long enough, wear down the State Department negotiators, eventually you get rewarded.” That is clearly the lesson Iran has drawn; if and when Iran gets its bomb, it will be the lesson others will draw, as well.
One final note: In 2012, North Korea reopened its Yongbyon reactor. No CNN cameras were there this time.