Monday, May 26, 2008

Christopher Hill and the art of the last laugh

As aWol's second term got underway, Condi Rice convened a series of strategy meetings to discuss what actions the U.S. could take to persuade North Korea to give up their nuclear weapons program. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, who was present at the meetings didn't have much to say, other than his oft-repeated refrain... "If you just let me go to Pyongyang, I'll get you a deal."

Much eyerolling resulted from this bold assertion every time it was made. No mid-level underling could possibly pull off such a diplomatic coup. Who did this megalomaniac think he was???

The answer to that question is - the guy who had the right stuff to pull off the greatest diplomatic coup since the Camp David Accords.
In the twilight of the Bush presidency, the nuclear agreement that Hill has tirelessly pursued over the past three years has emerged as Bush's best hope for a lasting foreign policy success. In the process, Hill has become the public face of an extraordinary 180-degree policy shift on North Korea, from confrontation to accommodation.

With crucial support from Rice, Hill has often triumphed over his bureaucratic rivals, making him a lightning rod for conservative critics. They caustically call him "Kim Jong Hill" -- a play on the name of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il -- and assert that he made concession after concession in a desperate effort to keep the talks from collapsing.

No assistant secretary of state can so dramatically change policy without the full backing of the secretary or the president. But for a mid-level official, Hill has had unusual access to the president, often joining breakfast meetings that include Rice, Vice President Cheney and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley. He has even had an occasional one-on-one chat with Bush.

Through deft use of public appearances and the news media, Hill also has become an international figure in his own right. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon last year hailed him as a "diplomat par excellence" whose "persistence and skillful negotiation have brought us close, I believe, to resolving this last legacy of the Cold War." Along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Aga Khan, Hill is even a finalist for Britain's prestigious Chatham House Prize -- given to the statesman who has had the greatest impact on international relations -- for keeping the North Korean "talks alive and viable, against seemingly impossible odds," including the "complex internal politics of Washington."

Under the agreements Hill has reached, Pyongyang has shut down its nuclear reactor, disabled key facilities and provided thousands of pages of records meant to verify the size of its stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium. Hill is traveling to Asia this week to prod North Korea to fully declare its nuclear programs. But the United States has backed off an earlier demand for detailed information about North Korean uranium enrichment or assistance to a clandestine Syrian reactor -- and is poised to remove key sanctions against North Korea.

Hill has been amazingly successful at tamping down the threat of a nuclear North Korea, but the greatest test is looming...Will North Korea give up their Plutonium stockpile and pledge to make no more weapons from it?

That is the $64,000 dollar question.

How long can Hill maintain his perch on the tightrope? He has managed the impossible thus far - he has managed to commit actual diplomacy while dealing with an administration that finds peaceful resolution of conflict anathema, and will only accept a diplomatic solution if there is no other alternative.

All the while, chickenhawk Übermensches have awaited his failure with bated breath, and the administration has been less than pleased with his successes. Indeed, they have denied him plaudits he richly deserved, just to remind him who works for whom.

Hill, for instance, was largely responsible for arranging the unprecedented visit to Pyongyang this year by the New York Philharmonic, even lobbying reluctant musicians to make the trip over a pizza lunch in the chorus rehearsal room last fall. "It was a spectacular thing to witness. He was direct and honest, and . . . changed a lot of minds that day," said Eric Latzky, spokesman for the orchestra.

But Rice ordered him not to attend the news conference announcing the trip after administration officials realized he would share the stage with a North Korean envoy.

"On the one hand, he is an effective negotiator," said Victor Cha, a former director of Asian affairs at the National Security Council, who was Hill's deputy at the nuclear talks in 2006. "But you can also view him as a media hog trying to be a hero."

The sort of dismissive drivel that Cha spouts is what prompts eyerolling from me - and most other reasonable, thoughtful, reality-based people.

Diplomacy is not appeasement, and Christopher Hill is a damned fine diplomat. The next administration needs to find a more powerful position from which he can showcase his talents. I don't know his party affiliation and I don't care. Obama says he is "post-partisan" so he shouldn't either.

What I do have a crush on is competence, and Hill has that in trump.

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