Outpost: Life on the Frontlines of American Diplomacy

Dec 3, 2014

TV Show


Former ambassador Hill has worked on some of the most dangerous and difficult problems in U.S. diplomacy, from the Balkans, to North Korea, to Iraq. In this astute and often funny talk, he gives an inside look at his work as a diplomat, and also discusses the latest crises, from ISIS and Syria, to Ukraine and dealing with Russia.


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I want to thank you all for joining us.

Before we begin, I just want to take a moment to thank Krishen Mehta for suggesting we host Ambassador Hill, and for his assistance in arranging his visit here this morning. Thank you, Krishen.

Our speaker, Chris Hill, is one of our country’s most distinguished career diplomats. If I were to ask you to make a list of some of the more challenging, and difficult places to be posted as the American ambassador in the last decade of the 20th century and in the early years of the 21st, I am confident that your list would include all of Ambassador Hill's postings. His experiences cover a span of over 30 years working for 11 secretaries of state and several presidents, which make the reading of his memoir, Outpost: Life on the Frontlines of American Diplomacy, all the more riveting and exciting.

A career as a diplomat is not always easy, and Ambassador Hill admits that diplomacy doesn't always work. Yet, through it all, whether in times of war, or in periods of relative calm, Ambassador Hill has been persistent and creative as he searched for practical solutions to address the numerous challenges our country has faced, even when the primary objective seemed elusive.

Whether serving in Kosovo, where his SUV was shot at while working on peace settlements; or conducting high-wire nuclear disarmament negotiations, while heading the U.S. delegation to the six-party talks on North Korea; or serving as ambassador to Iraq, where his motorcade weathered an IED [improvised electronic device] explosion; Ambassador Hill has literally navigated his way through some of the most tense political moments in some of the world's most troubled spots.

"There is no question that in a world of complex threats, our security and leadership depends on all elements of our power, including strong, and principled diplomacy." These remarks, while made by President Obama, could have easily have been made by our guest today, who has proven to be one of our country's most honorable, resolute, and effective envoys.

Please join me in giving a warm welcome to Ambassador Chris Hill. Thank you for joining us.


CHRISTOPHER HILL: Thank you very much, Joanne. Thank you for having me. I heard it was sold out, and I heard it was Carnegie, so I was thinking, "I sold out Carnegie Hall?" [Laughter] But this is close enough. And Krishen, thank you so much for taking the initiative to reach out to Carnegie. It's really quite, for me, very humbling, and I'm very honored to be here.

So I'm here in the crass business of selling a book. It's funny, I never sold a book before, and I must say, in government, you never write more than two pages because most people won't read much on that second page. And I remember that faithful day as I was writing, and my wife Julie would get me up at 4:45 in the morning, and I'd have about a quadruple espresso, and off to work I went. I remember telling Julie, "I'm on page three! I've never been on page three!" [Laughter] And you just kind of keep writing.

What is really fun about writing a book—there are fun moments to it—is it's just transformational in the sense that you're writing away, and then it's like your mind—you've gone back to periods of time from way before, and you start remembering things you didn't think you remembered. Of course you remember a lot of things incorrectly. I'd call people and they'd say, "No, Chris. That isn't at all how it happened. You've got it completely backwards." And then you'll rewrite it, even though it's not as good a story. I started stringing together these stories.

At first I talked to my editor, this just marvelous person—I'm seeing Andy Nagorski here, who has the same editor, Alice Mayhew. Simon & Shuster bid on my book, and unbeknownst to them I would've said "yes" even without the advance. Well, don't tell them that. I don't want them to feel too bad about it. At first, I get feted. I walked down 6th Avenue—what an occasion for a Foreign Service officer. But then I didn't hear anything at all for months on end. I'd send them chapters and say, "What do you think?" And nothing. I was sort of wondering whether I'd kind of screwed up in that choice. Then I sent them the full manuscript figuring, "Okay, you asked for it. Here it is." And then, ka-boom! I get back notes on every page, and Alice would say things like, "On page 340, you already said this on page 178." It was quite an experience.

What I thought I'd do with this book is kind of give these lessons in diplomacies. I'd tell a story, give a lesson, tell a story, and give a lesson. Alice said, "Get rid of those lessons. They're so boring. Just stick with the stories, and if the readership is what we think it will be, they'll get the point from the stories." So it became a pretty straight-up memoir.

At first I thought I would ignore stuff that I didn't think was as tumultuous as the Kosovo bombings or refugee camps. I kind of skipped some parts, and she goes, "Well, where were you there?" She sounded like some diplomatic security person doing your background check. I said, "Well, I was in Poland . . ." "Well, put that down! Write about that!" And before you knew it, actually a lot of interesting things happened in Poland, as Andy well knows.

So what I thought I'd do today, is maybe talk a little about where we are in this contemporary world. It picks up on a lot of themes, and maybe I'll try to track it a little with the book.

I always start, though, in talking about this contemporary world we live in by a quote from one of my favorite Polish party first secretaries. He was a guy named Władysław Gomułka, a name kind of lost to history, actually. But he was known for very long speeches, and very unsuccessful metaphors. One day he stood up in front of a big crowd in Krakow, in Southern Poland. And he was, of course, late so we had all these people sort of grumpy, and waiting for the party first secretary. And he got up in front of them and he said, "Comrades,"—he always addressed everybody as "comrade"—"Comrades, just a few years ago our fatherland stood on the very edge of the deep abyss. And I'm telling you today that we have taken an important step forward." [Laughter] You could read more about Władysław Gomułka, and who knows, he may have a Wikipedia page for all I know.

I think as we look at some of these contemporary crises it might be wise not to take that important step forward, but rather to take an important step back, and kind of consider where we are, how we got here, where we might go.

Joanne very kindly pointed out that I did write in the book as a kind of disclaimer that diplomacy doesn't always work. I just felt a diplomat ought to say that. I'd rather hear it from me than Dick Cheney, who does make an appearance in the book, falling asleep in the Oval Office during . . .

I really tried to avoid score-settling. I really did. I avoided it as much as I could, but when I saw in his book, which I do not recommend you buy, but maybe you could steal, or take out from the public library, he talks about what terrible people Condoleezza Rice and I were, in terms of the North Korea negotiations, kind of completely missing the point of what we were trying to accomplish there. A lot of what we're trying to accomplish was not so much disarming North Korea, although that would've been a heck of a nice bonus, it was to try to patch up a seriously declining relationship with South Korea, where we found after the first Bush term that in South Korea some 45, 50 percent of South Koreans were blaming us for North Korea's nuclear ambitions. Now when you have created victims out of North Koreans—talk about a kind of hideous alchemy—you're obviously doing something wrong,

So I think Secretary Rice and President Bush understood that after that first term, where we had two wars not going well—Afghanistan and Iraq—we didn't need a third crisis in the world. And moreover, if we're going to have any chance of dealing with the problems of North Korea, we're going to have to do it in a kind of multilateral, diplomatic framework, which is one of the great ironies of the six-party talks dealing with North Korea because President Bush felt very strongly we needed to get the Chinese involved—not that we're outsourcing our diplomacy, but they needed to be involved. In Secretary Rice's phraseology, we had to create these "patterns of cooperation."

And I would say that as we engaged with North Korea, we put to rest the notion that the United States was uncaring and uninterested in South Korea, and, in fact created patterns of cooperation with China and with South Korea. For those of you who somehow believed that our fate with China is to have some kind of conflict, I suggest you go to Beijing, take a cab, go 45 minutes north of Beijing, have a look at the Great Wall of China, and ask yourself, "Do we really want to get into a fight with the people who built a thing like this?" So we need to find better ways to deal with China.

But in mentioning Dick Chaney in that context, I really avoided the idea that this was going to be a Washington score-settling book, or even a Washington book. And hence the title, which Alice Mayhew came up with, which was Outpost. This is a book about being out there and having to make tough decisions on the fly, decisions with imperfect information, but decisions not only with imperfect information, but also decisions that had to be made in a very immediate timeframe.

So I go through some of those examples.

At one point I was asked to go and talk to the North Koreans with the understanding that North Koreans were going to announce that they would participate in the six-party talks at the end of the meeting. So Secretary Rice said to me, "All right, the president has approved this, but you have to do it in a Chinese government facility and with the Chinese present." That is, we didn't want to undermine a multilateral diplomacy by just having a U.S.-North Korea thing. So our embassy in Beijing comes up with a Chinese government facility, which happened to be the business center behind the Saint Regis Hotel.

I remember asking the embassy, "This is the best you could do for a Chinese government facility, behind the Saint Regis Hotel?" By the way, I talk a lot about Foreign Service officers because I'm very proud of my colleagues. His name was Edgard Kagan, and he said, "Well, they own a lot of things around here. They even own our embassy but we didn't think that was appropriate." [Laughter] Anyway, I go there, and there are no Chinese. We had been calling the Chinese all day and the Chinese, for all their great wisdom and forward-thinking, their way of not giving you the answer that you don't want to hear is just not picking up the telephone. So we had spent a whole day trying to find out if they were going to be attending this thing. Finally, I show up at this business center and we had a little dinner laid on—no Chinese, but no North Koreans either.

So I turned to Edgard and I thought Edgard and I were going to have a nice, romantic dinner together, and I told Edgard, "Call up your friends in the North Korean mission and find out what's going on." And so he calls them up, and he cups the phone against his chest, and he told me, "They want to know, are the Chinese there?" And so, by rights, I probably should've just called it all off. But I thought about it and I didn't have long to think about it because Edgard kept pointing menacingly with his other finger at the telephone saying, "Come on, we don't have all day for this!" And so I thought, "Okay, I could try to reach Secretary Rice." But she was actually in the air, and for people who watch movies and think it's easy to make phone calls from airplanes, it ain't. It ain't at all. So I realized I couldn't really get her, but if I really wanted to persist I'd have to basically cancel the talks. And would she really want me to cancel the talks? In fact, would she even want me to ask her, "Should I cancel the talks?" I thought through all that and I said "The heck with it. Let's go for it, and let's do it."

So I told Edgard to tell the North Koreans that "The Chinese are not here," and "Are you coming?" I remember they came out from the airport peering to both sides. What I did was calling an audible, in football terminology, and I realized there are no such things as audibles in the North Korean Foreign Ministry.

But, anyway, they sat down, we agreed on an announcement, we announced it, it was a big deal. Secretary Rice did arrive in Beijing late that night on some other business, but the diplomatic choreography was very good. And then she said, "It was a good result, but a very bad format that the Chinese had failed to arrive." She was really giving Li Zhaoxing a hard time.

Condi Rice wrote in her memoir that I was, at times, petulant with people. So I told her, "Being a good Balkan peasant, I'll get back at you at a time and place of my choosing." I have her in my book saying something like, "And so Rice shot back at her petulant best [Laughter] that, 'You, the Chinese, had failed to show.'" Anyway, she finally gave it a rest. But in the meantime I developed this reputation as sort of a rogue diplomat, a little out of control. The neo-conservatives never gave that a rest. They all felt that somehow I had ignored my instructions. This was something that came up in my hearing a few years later.

I had to make a decision, and I think I made the right decision that day, and I stand by it today.

So as we went forward, of course we were not able to reach a deal with the North Koreans. We got them to shut down their nuclear reactor, we got them to disable their nuclear reactor, and we got them to blow up the cooling tower—not bad. It took a long time. But ultimately they didn't give us the means to inspect places of our choosing. We could only inspect places of their choosing. And that was not an acceptable verification regime. Why they had suddenly tightened up, and made things more difficult is hard to say. Kim Jong-il, I think everyone knew in the summer of 2008, had actually become "Kim Jong very ill" when he had a stroke and was clearly not in a capacity to give instructions. Lo and behold, there's a rather strict verticality with how decisions are made in North Korea. So we didn't get the kind of verification we wanted.

And then as we fast-forward to today on that issue, I think it's pretty clear that while Kim Jong-il may have had some interest in pursuing these negotiations—they wanted us to certainly give them some kind of light water reactor that could produce electricity. And you have to bear in mind, North Korea does not have any oil, or adequate coal, for example. So it was not a crazy thing to ask that they have some kind of nuclear facility to produce electricity. They also don't have much electricity. But clearly a country that has cheated on everything they've ever agreed to is not a country that can be in a position to be asking for any kind of nuclear technology. So we did not go forward with that.

To this day, we have a situation where North Korea is, first of all, trying to develop nuclear material through the other means, which is through centrifuges, the highly enriched uranium process that the Iranians are very busily engaged in. And there are also even rumors that they restarted the Youngbyon reactor. Youngbyong is where their nuclear program is. Yongpyong in South Korea is where the next Winter Olympics will be. The North Koreans clearly, I think, have never really given up these nuclear aspirations and I think it's fair to say that Kim Jong-un has zero interest in this.

There's been a lot of talk that somehow there's a charm offensive coming out of North Korea. I always find North Korea and charm offensive to be rather mutually exclusive concepts, but they finally released these people who had ignored State Department travel advisories.

By the way, and I think this goes for people in Carnegie, read those State Department travel advisories before you go off to country X, make sure it's really a good idea to go there.

So the North Koreans released these people. They insisted on a cabinet level person who is in office, rather than a former one, so they had General Clapper go. I think it worked for them, and it certainly worked for us. General Clapper is not known for straying from his talking points, frankly, nor is he someone who would be engaged such as some former governor, or something, to try to suggest that he could restart the talks. I think it was probably the good decision for us, good decision for North Korea.

But I don't believe that we—either the Obama administration, or the Ted Cruz administration—that was a joke just to see if you're awake [Laughter]—should be thinking in terms of having some kind of regular dialogue with North Korea in the absence of clear understandings that they need to fulfill their obligations made in September 2005, affirmed for about four years from that time, that they have to abandon all their nuclear programs. I don't think we should let them off the hook, nor do I think we should allow them the notion that somehow we'll build a normal relationship except that they'll be a nuclear country—what they consider the India model, or the Pakistan model that eventually we'll get used to North Korea having nuclear weapons, and that should be okay. I think we should hold pretty hard on that point and not allow the North Koreans to get away with that.

That said, I wish we could take out some of the hoopla that we have in this country about talking to bad guys. I realize the North Koreans are as bad as it gets, but, you know, I used to deal with Milosevic a lot in the Balkans, and he was not a lot of fun to talk to either. I've found that whenever we were especially mad at them, you'd get people in Washington—"We shouldn't go talk to Milosevic." Well that's brilliant, except eventually you'd have to talk to him. And he's even worse than he was before because he's surrounded by these sycophants, who kind of give him the wrong message, with the consequence being that when you talked to him, you found him even more truculent than he was before, and you had to spend the first few hours coaxing him down from his tree and onto the ground so that he understood what the issue was.

I'm all in favor of talking to these people. I don't think the United States should ever be afraid to talk to somebody. But I think it needs to be very clear that we are not going to improve relations with North Korea until they acknowledge and agree to an implementation program for getting rid of their nuclear weapons. Whether they're ever able to do that—again, I'm not optimistic. I don't see Kim Jong-un interested.

But I am optimistic that there is a kind of turn of a wheel in China these days, and that the Chinese are getting more and sick of this. I think that is also a dividend of the six-party talk, where the United States, we really did everything we could do. Cynics would say, "We were doing it because somehow we had this doubleheader going on with Iraq, and Afghanistan. We had to give the North Koreans stuff." We weren't giving them anything. We were simply engaging as we should have been doing in the first place.

I think the Chinese have come to understand that the United States has really tried through this exercise, and I think there's a lot less in China about blaming the United States. So I think we need to stick with that program. I'd like to see more efforts by the United States to help protect our allies, South Korea, and Japan, in the form of—I think we should be talking missile defense with those countries. I think that China needs to understand that the North Korean nuclear program is creating a situation where maybe their own nuclear program could be obsolete at some point. That's kind of hardball, but that's kind of what you have to play in this game.

I think it is the right policy to work with China. It's not an outsourcing, and I think when you talk to people in Shanghai, they would like to throw the North Koreans under the bus as soon as they can. The problem is, in China there's a real division of interest of views there. There are many Chinese who regard a North Korean collapse and a South Korean successor state as a victory for America and a defeat for China. There's a lot of this kind of zero-sum thinking that goes on in China.

I think we need to take that on with the Chinese, have these kind of futuristic discussions even if the Chinese don't like it, and won't listen to it the first 50 times. I think we really need to work through that. And so I hope we'll continue at it with the Chinese, we'll continue to hold the South Koreans and the Japanese very close because Japan, in particular, is going through a lot of difficult times, whether it's nationalism, or something worse. I'm not of the view that Japan is going to go back to the 1930s, but I think it's very important that the United States has a good relationship with Japan, and I think it's very important for the entire region. So I hope we can continue to do that, and really be patient, but be firm that North Korea needs to get rid of these nuclear weapons.

And so when I left the North Korean account, Hillary Clinton called me upstairs—this was about two days after the inaugural—and she was convinced that the North Koreans were simply waiting for the new administration to come in. They'd had enough, and they were kind of bored with the Bush administration. They were going to look toward the Obama administration. I thought that she wanted another memo on North Korea, so I went up to her office—about 4:30 in the afternoon; it was a couple days after the inaugural—and I walk in, and I noticed all the furniture had been rearranged since Secretary Rice had left a couple of days earlier. The wing chairs were in different places, and I was sort of looking around, a little disoriented.

She asked me to sit down in one of the wing chairs. So I sat down. I'd never sat in one of the wing chairs. The way it works in the secretary's office is that's for the visitors. You sit in the hard-backed chair, if you have a chair at all. And so there I was in the wing chair, kind of looking around and then I noticed she had her deputy secretary there, Jim Steinberg, she had her under-secretary there, Bill Burns, and she had Cheryl Mills, her chief of staff.

So she started saying all these nice things to me about my career, and I felt like Frodo Baggins, sitting back in the wing chair after my adventures, and thinking, "Oh, isn't this wonderful? Hilary Clinton saying all these nice things." Then she says, "And so I'd like you to go out to Baghdad on one more adventure." [Laughter]

I said, "Well, let me make three points." In the Foreign Service you never make two points, and you certainly never make four. [Laughter] It's always three points. So I said, "Let me make three points. One, I'm much honored; two, I know how important it is; and three, I need to think about this."

So I went home that night, and I thought about this awful, awful situation in Iraq, what it's done to us, what it's done to Iraq, what it may have actually done to the entire region. And I thought, "I don't want to tell my grandkids that the secretary of state asked me to go and I turned her down." So I came back in the morning and said, "I'll do it."

So I head out there. It was the usual fun with the ambassadorial selection process. You know, the State Department, basically they're always worried that the Senate Committee will figure out a way to hold you, so the State Department, really they try to do their due diligence so there are no surprises. And then this due diligence is a question of—they have these questionnaires. Probably a few years ago it was like 20 questions, and then there was the issue of, "Do you have a nanny that hasn't paid taxes? Do you have someone who mows your grass?" And before you know it you've got about 800 questions.

You go through that, and you go through all the checks, and then some paralegal from the State Department law office, they call you up, and you go there—and this all happened within like a 10-day period, because they really put it on the fast track because my predecessor in Iraq had already left, Ryan Crocker, so there was no ambassador there. So the paralegal, I noticed she had gone to Wellesley and she was about my daughter's age, so I said, "Oh, did you know my daughter Amy?" Then she said, "Mr. Ambassador, I am so impressed with all the things you've done in your career." She kind of goes through my whole career. "You have done great things for our country, for the world." I'm kind of like, "Okay, this is all right." "And so I just have a few questions that we ask all our nominees." I said, "Sure, go ahead." "The first question is, have you ever been arrested for public drunkenness?" [Laughter]

So she goes through all of that. Eventually you get confirmed. It's a little like what I imagined childbirth to be. [Laughter] You don't remember the bad parts. Anyway, it all seemed fine.

I get out there and then I realized—first of all, we had an embassy there that under the chief of mission that is under the ambassador, you had some 15,000 people. Admittedly a lot of them were Peruvian security guards. Why Peruvian, by the way? Because you couldn't count on the Iraqi police and you couldn't even hire Iraqis. So they had a contract and a subcontractor in Peru, and so you had all these guys who looked vaguely like Gurkhas. They were kind of walking around the compound, and it was vast. It was huge. I'd never seen anything like it in my life and I'd been to just about every embassy in the world. And then you realize that you’re not an embassy. You're more a forward operating base for the military. And as vast as it was, it was tiny compared to what the military had.

I remember going to my first briefing for outside visitors. They were governors from several states who had National Guard contingents. I walk in and everyone at the table was military. I was the only civilian. There was one forlorn looking political officer about a half a mile away at the end of the table, flipping through Arabic language press clips. And I look around behind me, they're all military behind me. I thought, "Well, gosh, this looks kind of like a military briefing." And then, lo and behold, they have this big slideshow, and then General Odierno goes through these slides—I think he had done about a thousand times before—and he comes to slide 17, which was about the follow-on agreement that the United States would have with Iraq, this idea that we would have a kind of friendship agreement.

Someone in Poland once said to me, referring to the Polish Soviet Friendship Agreement, that it's always bad manners to have a friendship agreement with a country that you've invaded.

But anyways, so that flashes up on slide 17 and he says, "Mr. Ambassador, would you like to make a comment?" I said, "Sure, I'm glad I'm still awake here." [Laughter] Then I look over at the five governors, one of whom was Governor Perry from Texas, who was very nice, by the way, and they all had their little U.S. military tchotchke in front of them, nice military cup, and the big coin that looked the size of a coaster or something. So they asked a few questions. I went upstairs and called an impromptu staff meeting and I said, "Guys, this is an embassy. Can't we find an embassy cup to give these visitors or a baseball hat?" And someone says, "Well, who's going to pay for it?"

I realized there that the embassy was really not launched and that we were more of an adjunct to the military. I think that is a problem that has bedeviled us because as President Obama withdrew the troops, there was sense among the Iraqis, "no troops, no interest." In fact, President Obama had to withdraw those troops.

I know its customary today, given the ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] crisis—and a lot of this ISIS crisis started out during the surge and I'll get back to that in a second—there was somehow the view that President Obama failed to keep troops there. Well, the problem with keeping troops there was the Iraqis were quite happy to keep U.S. troops in Iraq, but they had to be subject to Iraqi law, that is no immunities of the kind that we would have in any other country where we based troops. The Iraqis simply would not allow what they considered invading troops to have immunities in their country.

And moreover, they would say things to you that they wouldn't necessarily say to each other. So if you talked to Nouri al-Maliki, the charming prime minister that I had to deal with—a person who, if he ever had charisma it cleared up a long time ago [Laughter] . . . So you would say, "Mr Prime Minister, we are prepared to keep 10,000 troops here. We are prepared to keep them here to help train up your forces." And I think we've learned some of the difficulties of training local forces. And Maliki would always say, "Absolutely. I completely agree with you. I just can't get the others to agree, and I can't take point on this because"— it's my words, his thoughts—"I can't be out front on this because this is a huge issue for the Iraqi people, that your troops cannot have immunity."

And then you go to the others, Allawi or the other Iraqi politicians, and you explain, and they'd say, "We completely agree with you. We just can't convince Prime Minister Maliki to agree."

This kind of stuff went on all the time. There are a couple of things I noticed in dealing with Iraq. One is, people will say one thing to you and another thing to someone else. Especially when you'd have these one-on-ones, which in most countries—-"Wow, I had a one-on-one. I think I really know where the guy is." Nonsense. The guy is not where you think he is because you had a one-on-one. And, two, it was quite possible for people to hold two contradictory thoughts at the same time and not be bothered by the problems involved in that.

So we were not able to get forces there. I think ideally what we might've done is pulled forces out at the end of 2011, which, by the way, under the Bush administration in December 2008, there was a status of forces agreement, and it called for the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of 2011. I thought I'd mention that because no one else seems to recall it. What we might've done is withdraw them all in 2011 and then reintroduce them, obviously not invading troops, but rather training troops. But even then the Iraqis never went for it, and I think by that time, once we withdrew them all I think the president wanted to live with his campaign promises to withdraw troops from Iraq, so that never happened.

Now we have a tough situation, I think, with ISIS. I think the president basically has the right formula, difficult as it is, which is we hit them from the air. Meanwhile the Iraqi Army, somehow, in a triumph of hope over experience becomes a little more trained, and more motivated. I think Haider Al-Abadi is a better choice than Maliki to lead this effort. I think it's important, not because I necessarily blame Maliki for the Sunni uprising, but I think clearly, three terms—there ought to be a constitutional amendment in Iraq to ban three terms because it's not going to work.

So maybe they'll be able to tough it out. Pesmerga forces, we're going to arm them—this is the Kurdish problem up there. Maybe we'll get some success. And there are some signs of that in Iraq.

Where we do not have success and will not have success is in Syria. That has to do with the fact that our country has only talked about Syria insofar as we should either arm people, or not arm people and I submit to you that is a level of engagement that is inadequate to what our country should be involved in. We need to be able to say as we did in Bosnia a year and a half before Dayton, "Bosnia shall consist of two entities. There shall be a Serb entity, there shall be a federation entity, which in itself will be an amalgamation of Muslims and Croats." We laid it all out, and all we did at Dayton, in those 21 days and nights, was to elaborate this so-called contact group plan.

Where is the contact group plan for Syria? Why have we failed completely to say what it is we'd like to see Syria look like in the future? Why can't we have our secretary of state get up and say, "Here's the U.S. view on Syria, let's say, 10 years from now. We would like that Syria is within its existing borders." I think that's important because a lot of people say, "Well why don't we change the borders? They were stupidly done by these stupid French and British diplomats?" Show me a border change, and I'll show you another war.

So, one, borders stay the same. Two, Syria should be heavily decentralized in a canton system. Any second-year law school student could figure out what it might look like in a constitutional context. Three, you might have a parliament, which—you don't need elections in Syria because you know the Sunnis are going to win. They're some 60 percent of the population, so that would be the lower chamber, a people's chamber. And an upper chamber, you might have a chamber of nationalities, or a chamber of sectarian identities, and a combination of which—we'll just say three of them could veto lower chambers, something like that.

This is not to say that this would be that everyone would jump onto this bandwagon. But it is that something out there that we can say, "We support the contact group plan for Syria." And we have completely failed to do that. Instead we have dumbed this all down to this desultory discussion of whether we should be arming the moderates.

First of all, it's a little theoretical what with there not being any moderates there. Secondly, the last thing Syria needs is more weapons on the battlefield. Thirdly, let's assume moderates—I sound like an economist here—we're going to have them defeat ISIS—by the way, I would call the Iraqi Army moderates, and they've had a heck of a time defeating ISIS. So one, they would defeat ISIS; two they would go after al-Nusra; and three, they would defeat Bashar al-Assad's forces; and four, they would agree on a victory parade into downtown Damascus—the last discussion of which I think would be probably more bloody than the first three battles. [Laughter]

But the point being, this is not where the United States should be in this discussion. We should be laying out what we feel, and work with others, and I would even work with the Russians on this. That is a country that I think has taken a giant leap backwards, and we're going to have huge problems in the next generation dealing with Russia. So can we maybe find a couple of areas to work with? Let's start with Syria.

So we are in a very difficult circumstance, as you look at this whole Iran nuclear issue. This is about Iran nukes the way Moby-Dick is a story about a whale. There's a lot more going on there. And if Iran agrees to this kind of formula, and if we can find common language with the Iranians, believe me, there will be serious problems, not only within Iran as they struggle in their own differences, not only between our president and the Congress, but also within the Middle East where the Sunni Middle East has never accepted a Shia Iraq, and they certainly don't accept that Shia Iran should have a role in the Sunni Arab Middle East. Lots of moving parts there, and I think we need to be very careful as we go forward there.

So I think this administration has its hands full, but I think it needs to try to deal with these issues with an understanding that they're not going to go away, and with the understanding that you can't solve them all. You need to make things a little better for your successor than you found them in the first place.

Thank you very much.


QUESTION: Warren Hoge, International Peace Institute.

Since the American military mission is often the training and equipping of local troops—I'm going back to Vietnam now with this—and since that certainly was the mission in Iraq, we saw how badly we seemed to have done that when ISIS confronted Iraqi troops and they fled. So my question is, do we have to rethink how we perform that mission of training local troops? Clearly it's going to continue to be a mission for the American military.

CHRISTOPHER HILL: I think training is important, but it's by no means a panacea, nor should it be trooped out every day as the metric of how fast we are to making an exit strategy. Just as in Vietnam they talked about body counts every week, in Iraq they talked about numbers of Iraqis trained every week. And I wouldn't believe either, in terms of the U.S. exit strategy. I think it's an important component of what we do, but it should not be the lead component as it was allowed to become.

And by the way, why armies fight—people have written books and books about why armies fight, and good equipment and training is part of the deal, but motivation is a huge part of the deal of why armies fight. I think we probably paid inadequate attention to the underlying political problems in Iraq, the Shia/Sunni divide. We thought we had bridged that in some seven months of the so-called surge, which became a kind of a secret sauce to allow this century of American domination to continue. After all, people say, "America, we can force everyone to our will," and then, lo and behold, the first problem comes up, and, "What are we going to do?" And then the surge comes along, "Okay, we've got the tactics now to go with this grand strategy."

In fact what we did in Iraq was to come up to Sunni sheikhs and to say, "Sheikh, I got a deal. Here's some money, but no more shooting at our guys. If you want money, you can't shoot. If you want to shoot, no money."

You can't buy these guys but you can sure rent them. [Laughter] And we rented them for some time, with the consequence that finally ISIS has come in and they're doing the same thing.

You know, the wheel was invented in Iraq many centuries ago and I think paying off local chieftains was also probably invented in Iraq many centuries ago. And so to have four-star generals parading around in this country claiming they came up with this secret sauce is a little hard to take.

QUESTION: Richard Valcourt, International Journal of Intelligence.

You talked about the Middle East, about the Far East. How about going back to Europe, and dealing with Russia and Ukraine? What's going to be done over there?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: I think it's a very difficult problem because we don't control the escalation in Ukraine. What we do, we'll bring a knife, and Putin will bring a sub-machine gun. So I think we have real problems.

I worry that we're leading it only with sanctions because I think it reverses 25 years of trying to integrate Russia. But I don't disagree with the sanctions program. You've got to do something, you can't do nothing.

I would like to see, however, a revamped NATO, a re-sharpening of NATO as a military alliance. I'd like to see U.S. troops, now in Stuttgart, to see them in places like Wrocław. I'd like to see a kind of eastward deployment of NATO. Sounds a little provocative, but NATO is responsible for those countries.

Anyone who knows anything about Polish history, in 1939 they had this great deal with the British and the French—Germans invade us, you all declare war on Germany, and that's all what happened, but it didn't do anything. So in short, I think Poland is saying, "It's great to be in NATO, but we want to see NATO in us." I think we ought a make some adjustments in that.

I won't call it a Cold War, but I think we're in for a long problem with Russia. It's not just Putin, its Putinism. I think the way to defeat Putinism is to somehow leave the door open economically because I think that in the long run what will defeat Putinism is Russia's economy integrated in the West.

I'm nervous about all this sanctions talk, but I think in the meantime we need to protect our allies and make sure that everyone understands that collective defense means just that. I'd like to see the Europeans stop just looking at military budgets as job programs, and start looking at them again as real military budgets.

QUESTION: Anthony Faillace.

If you were briefing the president and the secretary of state on how to get the most out of their ambassadors and their State Department staff, what are the things you'd tell an incoming administration?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: First of all, I'd get people who know a little more about the country that they're being assigned to than what they read in Wikipedia. I think there have been some problems in that regard recently, but this is a longstanding issue.

I think there's one thing that ambassadors need to do, adnd I hinted at this earlier with Milosevic. Your job as ambassador is not to get up from the rooftops and talk about how many Twitter followers you have, or to be denouncing the local government because you want to make sure that McCain knows that you're a tough guy. That's a different subject. [Laughter] But I think what's important for an ambassador is to keep the door open to the locals. That is, if you can't go through that door and say, "Look, Mr. Prime Minister, I told you this was going to happen. You know we have a good relationship, but I'm telling you, what you're doing is causing huge problems there, and look what just happened today." That's the kind of relationship I think you need.

I was very pleased to see John Tefft named, and now credited to Russia. John is one of these guys who understands that the job is to make sure you know people, and people know you, and you have a clear understanding. There are plenty of people back in Washington who will say that Putin should go to hell, or whatever, but the U.S. ambassador doesn't have to be doing this kind of stuff with all the social media, and all these irrelevancies. The person has one job: keep the door open. So that's one important point.

And then the other important point is, we live in a very troubled world, and it's very personally nasty at times. People come after your people in the field. And I think if you're president, you need to back your people in the field. I think if you don't do that you're going to have a real problem where your people in the field cannot do their jobs. If you don't like what the person in the field is doing, get another person. But back them up until you're prepared to get another person.

Everything is so political now. Remember that quaint idea that politics stops at the water's edge? Look what happened to John Kerry a few months ago. He goes in to see Netanyahu, and then Lindsey Graham and John McCain follow him like 20 minutes later to see Netanyahu and then they make an announcement, "Well, Netanyahu didn't tell us what the secretary said he told . . . " That kind of behavior really should be called out by people. There's not enough of the calling out. If John McCain—he should try to be president. Oh, I guess he did that. [Laughter]

And some of this kibitz thing on the ambassador—John McCain had one nomination to make in his entire life, and he chose Sarah Palin. So if he wants to kibitz all our ambassadors, good for him. He needs to remember he had one time up at bat, and I think he swung and missed.

QUESTION: Thank you. I'm Helena Finn, former U.S. diplomat, and my question is—

CHRISTOPHER HILL: You're never a former diplomat.

QUESTION: That is so true. I'm now with the American Council in Germany.

My question is, if we provide more support for the Peshmerga, how will that impact on Turkey, considering—and I think what you said about NATO was very, very excellent, and wonderful—considering that Turkey is a NATO ally.

CHRISTOPHER HILL: I think Turkey is one of these divided societies. I think Erdoğan has helped make it very divided. He doesn't know whether Turkey should be Kemalist, that is interested in joining Western systems, or should be somehow neo-Ottomanist, that is interested in dominating their near abroad. I think the Turkish people are very uncomfortable with this notion that Turkey needs to be up to its neck in regional issues. I think Turkish people are very uncomfortable about that.

But I would add to you that I think the Arabs are uncomfortable with the notion that as they go through hideous problems—and that is an adequate description, I think, of what's going on in the Middle East—they kind of feel that the Turks are butting in, and trying to take advantage of it to show their leadership. Clearly Egypt, which was always the adult leadership in this, they're clearly on the sidelines for the time being. And the perception among many Arabs is that Turks are kind of meddling in it.

So I think the Turks, like a lot of things in life, you need to respect the history. And the history of Ottomanism in the Middle East is not a very good history. The Turks need to tread a little carefully there. I think the Turks ought to take a deep breath—and by Turks I mean President Erdoğan—they need to take a deep breath, and consider what it means to be a NATO ally. And if they want to go off on their own all the time—there's some things you're going to be on your own because you have national interest. Lord knows it's not for Americans to criticize someone else's exceptionalism. But Turkey needs to think that through a little because at this point I have trouble defining them as a NATO ally.

So whether this problem was set in motion because the Europeans didn't accept Turkey into the European Union, and they got traumatized by it, who knows? It doesn't really matter. I think Turkey does need to develop some consensus politics.

Some of these people, they learn the first lesson of democracy, which is majority rule. But the second lesson of democracy is making sure the minorities are attended to. For all the accolades for Nelson Mandela, the greatest thing about him was of course his understanding that when you have your minority, and they're used to being in charge, albeit by brute force, you still need to reach out to them. I always wonder if Nouri al-Maliki had woken up as Nelson Mandela, maybe it could've been better there.

But I think the real problem in these divided societies is the Sunni/Shia divide. It's been around 1,300 years, but it's often been in remission for long periods of time. Now it's out there, and now it requires all countries to be prudent about it and I think the Turks need to stop looking like they're acting as Sunni Arabs to curry favor with Sunni Arabs who will never accept them anyway because they're not Arabs.

QUESTION: James Starkman.

I was watching a remarkable one-hour interview last night on the Charlie Rose show with Chuck Hagel. And it occurred to me that this man had a very low profile compared to his predecessors. You go back to Rumsfeld, Gates, and Panetta. He seemed to have a very deep understanding of many of the issues between the diplomatic core and the Defense Department in the military. I'd like to have your comment about that relationship between the diplomacy and the top Defense Department people. [Editor's note: This talk took place a few days before the announcement of Hagel's resignation as secretary of defense on November 24, 2014.]

CHRISTOPHER HILL: First of all, he's a person who I think represents a really positive side of politics, which is to try to understand the other guy's point of view. I think that's been his hallmark. You can argue whether you should've been better prepared to enter his hearings, or whatever, but I think he's always had this concept of listening to others.

Secondly, he was someone who has fought in battle, and knows that wars are not fun things. I think he's kind of an old-fashioned guy, in that he likes to see diplomacy given a shot first.

And thirdly, he's just a very nice person who empathizes. I remember he was at my dinner table in Poland once, and I invited a lot of these Polish friends. And by the end of the dinner they were asking him if he could maybe become a Polish citizen so they could vote for him for president. [Laughter]

He understands that the civil/military issue, in particular, in this country today is a serious problem. If you consider the United States a giant high school, the military, they're the football team, and the State Department, they're, at best, the chess team. And that's kind of the way it is. But I think he's understood the necessity to have a good chess team. I think he also understands the fact that when the military, as it became in Iraq, is by far the biggest aid donor—and remember what the aid was doing. It was to say, "Here's some money, but don't shoot at us." It had become so-called force protection.

Meanwhile the State Department comes along and says, "Well here's some money. I know it's 1/1,000 of what you were just offered, and I know that you're going to have to have a lot of forms to fill—environmental impact, etc. . . ." It's not very impressive to the locals compared to what they've been offered. Hagel understands these dynamics. And he asks a lot of questions. I have a lot of respect for him on that.

JOANNE MYERS: Well I know there are so many questions, but it is time to end. Thank you for the most seriously entertaining morning. It was wonderful, absolutely wonderful.

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Thank you very much.

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