As 2012 begins, two countries of strategic interest to the United States are launching new chapters in their troubled histories.
With the official end of Operation Iraqi Freedom in December, a sovereign Iraq will attempt to negotiate democracy without assistance from the U.S. military. Meanwhile, North Korea begins life under Kim Jong Un, who assumed leadership of the country after his father, Kim Jong Il, died in December.
For Christopher Hill, dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and a State Department veteran experienced in negotiating with the North Korean government, these may be fresh starts, but they’re also extensions of complex narratives.
In December 2011, just as the last American troops were packing up their body armor and heading for home, Hill journeyed to Kurdistan, one of Iraq’s most peaceful provinces. There, he met with Iyad Allawi, head of the Sunni-backed Iraqiya political bloc. “Certainly when I was there,” Hill says, “I got a sense of the deteriorating relationship between [Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki and some of his coalition partners.”
That deterioration, months in the making, became front-page news when, just days after the U.S. departure, al-Maliki, a Shia, called for the arrest of the Sunni vice president and asked parliament to fire the Sunni deputy prime minister. These moves were followed by a wave of deadly explosions in several of Baghdad’s predominantly Shia neighborhoods.
In the west, much of the pundit class was quick to link escalating sectarian tensions to the exit of U.S. troops. But Hill thinks these conclusions were hasty, if not downright wrong. For one thing, he recalls, “in my waning weeks there (as ambassador in summer of 2010), I was constantly trying to set up meetings between Allawi and al-Maliki.”
His efforts were stymied, a sign even then that the coalition government was struggling.
“The U.S. press has done a disservice to readers,” he says. Media accounts that draw direct correlations between departing U.S. troops and rising strife suggest that the latter would not have happened without the former. “It is not at all clear to me what an extra increment of U.S. troops would be able to do about this,” Hill says, noting that the Sunni-Shia divide, which has persisted for centuries, was never likely to be resolved by American soldiers.
Tensions may well continue to fester, but Hill believes the U.S. embassy is well positioned to offer counsel as Iraq strives to govern itself. “The embassy’s job,” he says, “is to develop a keen understanding of local conditions and make sure that Washington understands those conditions.”
On top of that, Hill believes that U.S. diplomats can play a vital role in helping the country rebound from Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. “There is not a deep reservoir of experience with democratic institutions in Iraq. Our job is to be calm and to impart that calmness,” he says, noting that the U.S. ambassador should play a constructive role in mediating differences among Shias, Sunnis and Kurds.
It’s not helpful, Hill says, for the Western press to stress that the American embassy in Iraq represents the largest diplomatic mission in the world. Such language suggests to Iraqis that the U.S. has merely replaced soldiers in combat gear with strongmen in pinstripe suits.
Although Iran may regard the American departure from Iraq as a victory, that does not mean the troop presence should have been prolonged. True, Hill says, “Iranians have made fostering Shia rule in Iraq a major priority.” They’ve also called for the departure of U.S. troops. “So far, they’re two for two,” Hill notes. “Nonetheless, very few Shia in Iraq have any interest in living under Iranian Shia. The Iraqi Shia are not pro-Iranian, and there are real limits to what the Iranians can accomplish there.”
What’s more, if U.S. diplomats strive to encourage democratic processes for problem-solving and dialogue, they can counter the Iranian agenda. “Iran has been supporting very nefarious elements in Iraq, most notably some Shia militia groups,” Hill says, noting that these anti-democratic forces have formed to counter anti-democratic and Sunni-backed terrorist groups. Fostering democratic institutions and pluralism should undermine the need for such groups.
Looking back on the American experience in Iraq, Hill hopes that the U.S. has learned a few lessons about the aftermath of dictatorships. Before attempting to change regimes, it pays to understand the complexity of a country’s culture and context. It may not have been the best idea, for example, for the Coalition Provisional Authority — which oversaw the administration of Iraq from 2003 to 2004 — to craft an interim government dominated by Sunnis. Saddam Hussein, after all, was a Sunni.
“Clearly, the answer to Saddam Hussein was not more minority Sunni rule,” Hill says.
Hill also hopes that the U.S. has learned to regard the assessments offered by insiders through the appropriate prism. “One has to take with a grain of salt the advice we get,” Hill says. “Iraqis of all stripes will try to draw us into their politics by denouncing their adversaries and claiming they are closer to us. The challenge for a diplomat is to listen to all sides, to be open, but to recognize what is often spin and often intended to influence rather than inform.”
When Kim Jong Il, the supreme leader of North Korea, died in December 2011, Western observers found themselves at a loss for meaningful precedent. After all, Kim’s death represents only the second time in North Korea’s history that the country has experienced a leadership transition.
Inside North Korea, outpourings of grief bordered on the surreal. Outside North Korea, the country’s neighbors struggled to demystify Kim’s successor. Will Kim Jong Un continue North Korea’s extreme isolationism and its pursuit of a nuclear weapon? How will he interact with North Korea’s powerful military?
“The question will be,” Hill says, “are we seeing the emergence of a junta/cult or a cult/junta?” In other words, does the military or the new leader have the upper hand?
Early analysis suggests that Kim Jong Un is unlikely to try to prove himself via a military venture, but given the country’s dire economic straits, Hill explains, he won’t be able to distinguish himself on the economic front either. That means prospects for the average North Korean will remain bleak.
“I never put optimism and North Korea in the same sentence,” Hill says.
Positive change in North Korea is only likely when the United States, China and South Korea work together to bring it about. For the time being, the Chinese, distracted by economic challenges of their own, are likely to reinforce the status quo. “They’re not prepared to make fundamental changes regarding North Korea,” Hill says.
As U.S. diplomats ponder the way forward, they would do well to remember two things. First, Hill says, “We need to respect that to South Korea, North Korea is a very emotional issue.” South Koreans bristle when American leaders suggest that their approach to their neighbor is too soft. The U.S. needs to acknowledge this perspective. “And I believe the Obama administration is doing that,” Hill says.
Second, from the Chinese perspective, a unified Korea represents a foreign policy failure. For years, the Chinese leadership worried about the Soviet Union encircling the country. “Today, sadly, the Chinese seem to be worried about U.S. encirclement,” Hill says. It will take concerted effort to help the Chinese see that a united peninsula is not a threat to their interests.
The U.S. must continue its efforts to thwart North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, but it should realize that bellicosity is likely to backfire. “Threatening it with military force,” Hill cautions, “is really to play the role reserved for us in North Korean comic books.”