The Cable

Top brass disturbed by GOP stalling of Iraq ambassador

There's one as yet unremarked constituency increasingly disturbed by some Republican senators' efforts to block the confirmation of former North Korea envoy Christopher Hill to be the next U.S. ambassador to Iraq: the U.S. military.

Sources tell The Cable that Centcom commander Gen. David Petraeus, top Iraq commander Gen. Raymond Odierno, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates are frustrated by the delay in getting a U.S. ambassador confirmed and into place in Iraq, and support Hill's confirmation proceeding swiftly.

Opposition to the Hill appointment has been led by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Sam Brownback (R-KS), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC). Brownback has called Hill's past dealings with Congress over North Korea "evasive and unprofessional." In a joint statement last week, McCain and Graham wrote that Hill had a "controversial legacy" on North Korea, and added, "The next ambassador should have experience in the Middle East and in working closely with the U.S. military in counterinsurgency or counterterrorism operations. Mr. Hill has neither."

Since the previous ambassador, Ryan Crocker, left the job Feb. 13, Odierno has complained of doing double duty: serving as the commanding general and the de facto ambassador.

The power vacuum in Baghdad comes at a critical juncture in Iraq's transition, sources noted. The U.S. mission is becoming increasingly focused on political stabilization and economic development over military missions; Arab-Kurd tensions are rising in the north; struggles for dominance within and across sectarian groups are heating up in the aftermath of January's provincial elections; the Baghdad government is facing tough budget choices due to declining oil prices; and national elections that will determine whether Iraq can consolidate its democracy are due by year's end.

Keeping a lid on such political tensions is "crucial to consolidating the security gains from the surge," a Washington Iraq hand said, "yet the advocates of the surge want to slow down the process of getting an ambassador to Iraq."

Crocker is an Arabic-speaking "superstar" who garnered tremendous respect from the military in Iraq and will be hard to replace, said a currently serving U.S. military officer on condition of anonymity. But it's particularly important to get another ambassador in there to beef up the State Department role and resources during this moment of transition, he argued.

"I would not at all be surprised if military commanders in Iraq are frustrated that they don't have a new ambassador in position," added Gen. William Nash (ret.), the former top U.S. commander in Bosnia, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The issues are far more political and economic than they are military and U.S. efforts need to move forward on those fronts. That's particularly critical in the execution of the withdrawal plan."

Asked if Republican objections to Hill that he is not a Middle East expert are legitimate, Nash said the opposition is "being difficult to be difficult. I have known Chris Hill for 14 years. He is a wonderful diplomat and exactly the kind of guy we need in Iraq."

Asked about information indicating that Petraeus supported getting Hill quickly into place, a spokesman for the general told The Cable that it was a good question but Petraeus declined to comment. A message to Odierno was not immediately returned. (See update, below. "Generals Odierno and Petraeus have come out very publicly and very forcefully in support of Amb. Hill’s nomination," Secretary Gates' spokesman Geoff Morrell told The Cable Thursday. "They know him from previous assignments, they like him, they believe he is well suited to the job and are anxiously awaiting his confirmation because they do need help, frankly.")

A Republican Senate staffer who asked for anonymity said he thought the opposition to Hill was not opportunistic but was based on the senators' desire to get to know the would-be ambassador a little better. He said he thought it was just about over.

On Tuesday, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), an occasional Obama confidant, came out in favor of Hill. So did former Ambassador Crocker, former Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, and former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Zalmay Khalilzad in a letter quoted by the Associated Press. "We need his experience during this crucial time in Iraq," the letter reads. "His previous experiences will serve him greatly when addressing extreme challenges in Iraq."

Hill met with Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff Monday, along with relevant member offices, including that of Senator Lugar, committee sources said. Staffers were advising the candidate on how best to prepare for his nomination hearing before the committee, which is currently scheduled for March 25. They predicted he was likely to get voted out of the committee, but said the real battle would be getting him a vote on the floor.

"This is all about retribution," said one Senate Democratic foreign-policy staffer. Conservatives blame Hill for nudging Bush's second term North Korea policy towards multi-party talks. "They want to give Hill a black eye."

If this drags on, Democrats may look to turn the tables on the Republican senators, who have argued that Iraq was so central to U.S. national security. "Why are they dicking around and not putting an ambassador in there if Iraq is so important?" the Senate Democratic foreign-policy staffer said.

It's a point the generals are quietly saying among themselves, if not yet publicly.

UPDATE: The U.S. military's chief spokesman, Geoff Morrell, told The Cable Thursday: “Generals Odierno and Petraeus have come out very publicly and very forcefully in support of Ambassador Hill’s nomination. I know they support it. They know him from previous assignments, they like him, they believe he is well suited to the job and are anxiously awaiting his confirmation because they do need help, frankly. ... Everybody involved with Iraq wants to find a way to replicate that arrangement" -- the effective interaction between Generals Odierno and Petraeus and former Ambassador Crocker. "So that you have an even yoke that on the civilian/diplomatic side and on the military side which share the burden and are working together to get the job done. It’s what’s in the best interest of the Iraqi people and the American people.   “With regards to [Senate] members who have issue with him, I would say this," Morrell added. “We appreciate their steadfast support of the Iraq mission. But you can’t be bullish in support of that mission and not send an ambassador in a timely fashion.” 

UPDATE II: Col. James Hutton, a spokesman for Gen. Odierno, responds: "While Gen. Odierno is clearly interested in a new ambassador coming to Iraq, he recognizes the importance of the process that leads to
confirmation.  It is key that an ambassador arrives to help address
important policy issues and begins interfacing with the senior leaders
of the Government of Iraq.
Gen. Odierno has not said and does not see himself, as you wrote, as the 'de facto ambassador.' He fully understands the importance of the unique role of the embassy staff, particularly that of the Charge d' Affairs. He places a high value on the extraordinary skills provided by our foreign service officer professionals and has never presumed a role beyond command of Multi-National Force-Iraq."

FILE PHOTO: FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

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