Review — OUTPOST by Chris Hill (Cameroon 1974-76)

Chris Hill (Cameroon 1974-76) begins his new book: Outpost: Life on the Frontlines of American Diplomacy by telling his favorite story, his account of how as a PCV in Cameroon he tried to overhaul a corrupt credit union only to have his efforts rejected, largely because he did not understand the community’s internal dynamics and culture.

What happened was something like this, Chris discovered that one board of directors had stolen 60 percent of their members’ money. He reported this to the members, who promptly re-elected them because the board reflected carefully balanced tribal interests and it really didn’t matter to the members if the board directors ran a good credit union or not. Hill said the lesson was that “When something’s happened, it’s happened for a reason and you do your best to understand that reason. But don’t necessarily think you can change it.”images2

In his book he then sums up, “Years later, in the Middle East, in the Balkans, in Asia, I would see time and again systematized efforts on the part of the United States to pick winners in situations we understood little about.” And he writes. “Like my efforts at the Tole Tea Estate’s credit union, they never worked.”

From these early PCV days in Cameroon–he still insists it was his favorite job–to his final post as America’s ambassador to Iraq, Hill’s career covers a lot of territory, both geographically and in terms of our diplomatic history. He entered the State Department in 1977 and over the course of 33 years in the State Department, he worked for 11 secretaries of state, helped end the civil war in Bosnia, and was ambassador to Macedonia, Poland, South Korea and Iraq as well as the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs under President George W. Bush. He retired in 2010 as one of the most successful diplomats of his generation. Today he’s the Dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.

Now, he goes writes a book and gets himself into trouble. In a recent review in the Wall Street Journal done by Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA officer who is now a scholar at Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute, he is the target of a lot of undiplomatic prose. Terry writes at one point in her review, “One of Mr. Hill’s most consistent japes against “the neocons” who advocated the invasion of Iraq is that they ‘did not have the good manners or common decency to admit their mistake.’ Christopher Hill doesn’t admit his either.” Wow.

She then go onto say “Anyone interested in joining the Foreign Service would benefit from reading about what Mr. Hill did and how he did it. But for most readers, the chief interest of this book will be the controversies surrounding Mr. Hill’s involvement with signal failures in North Korea and Iraq. How, one wonders, will he come to terms with these defeats?”

Hill, according to Terry, was seen by his critics as a disengaged ambassador who had little influence on the Iraqis and poor relations with Gen. Ray Odierno, the senior U.S. military commander in Iraq.

She goes onto write, “The ambassador insists his negotiations served a purpose. He points out that North Korea provided operating records for the Yongbyon reactor that were sprinkled with uranium dust, which helped the U.S. to learn more about the country’s nuclear program. He also writes that the talks made it clear that the “onus of blame was put where it belonged, with the North Koreans.” Perhaps so, but he is silent on the costs. North Korea has never been put back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, and thus can receive international aid that helps prop up the regime.

“A similar lack of self-reflection recurs in Mr. Hill’s description of his time in Baghdad-a crucial year during which he had to deal with the 2010 election and the stalemate thereafter. Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite with Sunni support, won the most parliamentary seats, but Nouri al-Maliki, a more sectarian Shiite, held on to the prime minister’s job with the support of both Iran and the Obama administration. Mr. Maliki’s second term was disastrous, pushing Iraq to the brink of civil war and paving the way for the rise of ISIS.”

This week in the Washington Post, Glenn Kessler, a former diplomatic correspondent, and the author of “The Confidante: Condoleezza Rice and the Creation of the Bush Legacy” is a like kinder on Hill. Kessler writes, “Rather than a turgid tome, Hill’s book is lively, entertaining – even at times laugh-out-loud funny. He spends just enough time to let readers understand the gist of a complicated diplomatic problem, without getting too bogged down in the weeds. Full disclosure: I closely covered the North Korea negotiations as The Washington Post’s State Department correspondent, and Hill and I had a sometimes testy relationship.”

Everyone agrees that Hill is an ‘old school’ diplomat who focuses on safeguarding U.S. interests and maintaining relations with key allies. He is someone who has little patience for rigid ideologues, especially neoconservatives in the Bush administration. Kessler writes, “He has a special animus for former vice president Dick Cheney, who he believed undercut his North Korean diplomacy. (Well, right there, he is a hero in my book.)

Here’s a summary of the book, another gem from an RPCV writer who happens to have been a diplomat (well, no one is perfect.)

Outpost: Life on the Frontlines of American Diplomacy: A Memoir

An “inside the room” memoir from one of our most distinguished ambassadors who-in a career of service to the country-was sent to some of the most dangerous outposts of American diplomacy. From the wars in the Balkans to the brutality of North Korea to the endless war in Iraq, this is the real life of an American diplomat.

Hill was on the front lines in the Balkans at the breakup of Yugoslavia. He takes us from one-on-one meetings with the dictator Milosevic, to Bosnia and Kosovo, to the Dayton conference, where a truce was brokered. Hill draws upon lessons learned as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon early on in his career and details his prodigious experience as a US ambassador. He was the first American Ambassador to Macedonia; Ambassador to Poland, where he also served in the depth of the cold war; Ambassador to South Korea and chief disarmament negotiator in North Korea; and Hillary Clinton’s hand-picked Ambassador to Iraq.

Hill’s account is an adventure story of danger, loss of comrades, high stakes negotiations, and imperfect options. There are fascinating portraits of war criminals (Mladic, Karadzic), of presidents and vice presidents (Clinton, Bush and Cheney, and Obama), of Secretaries of State (Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Hillary Clinton), of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and of Ambassadors Richard Holbrooke and Lawrence Eagleburger. Hill writes bluntly about the bureaucratic warfare in DC and expresses strong criticism of America’s aggressive interventions and wars of choice.

From Amazon Review

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  • Great review, John. Chris Hill was Ambassador to Macedonia while we started the Peace Corps program there in 1996/7 via Bulgaria. His help was instrumental in creating a strong program that responded to key Macedonian needs and kept the Volunteers safe during some ‘interesting’ times…. Many thanks to Ambassador Christopher Hill, RPCV. It will be a delight to read his book.

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