By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, a career diplomat who since 2005 was chief negotiator in the often difficult effort to try to persuade North Korea to end its nuclear programs, will be nominated as ambassador to Iraq, administration officials said.
He is an unexpected choice to succeed the highly regarded Ryan C. Crocker, who retired last month after a career spent largely in the Arab world.
Hill is a consummate dealmaker, but he does not speak Arabic, and his expertise lies in Europe and Northeast Asia. He was ambassador to Poland, Macedonia and South Korea and also was a top negotiator to the Dayton peace accords that ended the Bosnian war in the mid-1990s.
Hill won plaudits for his efforts in the face of opposition from within the Bush administration and the often frustrating negotiating tactics of the North Koreans. But he also was criticized for appearing at times too eager to strike a deal, or too eager to court the news media.
Hill did not respond to a phone call or e-mails about his appointment.
Over the course of four years, Hill was largely responsible for dramatically shifting the Bush administration's policies on North Korea, despite opposition from Vice President Cheney, who opposed making what he considered concessions to the North Korean government. Hill struck a deal with North Korea and then, step by step, persuaded Pyongyang to halt its nuclear reactor and begin to disable it.
The high point came last June, when North Korea blew up the cooling tower attached to the reactor on worldwide television. But the talks have since soured, with North Korea refusing to agree to rigorous inspections to verify its nuclear claims, even after Bush removed the Pyongyang government from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Hill's key ally in this effort was then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, but he made little secret of his belief that the administration had badly bungled the North Korean issue in Bush's first term, when Rice was national security adviser.
In David Sanger's recently published book, "The Inheritance," Hill offered a blunt dismissal of his hard-line foes in the administration. "These [expletive deleted] don't know how to negotiate," he said. "Everything is Appomattox. It's just 'Come out with your hands up.' "
Hill has an easy manner and dry sense of humor that may serve him well in the fractious politics of Iraq. He was ambassador to Macedonia when protesters attacked the U.S. Embassy in 1999 over NATO airstrikes in Yugoslavia. In a story Hill loves to recount, the embassy in Macedonia, unlike most overseas missions, did not have Marine guards. The protesters quickly overran the guard posts and began to use the embassy flagpole as a battering ram. When a top State Department official called Hill during the crisis to ask where his Marines were, Hill sardonically noted he didn't have any -- but that there were Marines at the embassy in Luxembourg.
Hill arrived in South Korea in 2004, when tensions with the United States were running high. In Seoul, he broke with diplomatic precedent -- and charmed the South Korean public -- by repeatedly visiting universities and other hotbeds of anti-Americanism to give speeches and have debates. He established an online chat room and personally answered questions from Koreans under the name "ambassador."
Hill's mentor in the 1990s was Richard C. Holbrooke, the former U.N. ambassador who was recently named special representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Holbrooke described Hill as "brilliant, fearless and argumentative" in his book on the Dayton negotiations.
Hill would be the fourth U.S. ambassador to serve in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein and the establishment of an Iraqi government. Former U.N. ambassador John D. Negroponte and former envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad preceded Crocker.