Former ambassador discusses Middle East


Christopher Hill, the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and University of Denver Dean of International Studies, spoke of the vital role the U.S. plays in the Middle East to students and members of the Tampa community Wednesday at the Patel Center for Global Solutions.

“Some Americans talk of isolation from the rest of the world,” he said. “Whether we like or not, we have to deal with other countries.”

Mohsen Milani, the USF executive director of the Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies and moderator of the discussion, said he invited Hill to educate students on the ramifications international events have on U.S. interests.

“What happens in that part of the world will have an impact on the way Americans live and an impact on the American economy,” he said. “In this age of globalization, we need to know what happens elsewhere.”

The discussion began with an examination of the U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan since the events of 9/11.

“We were attacked,” he said. “I don’t think any nation can simply ignore someone who attacks you like that-killing 3,000 of your citizens.”

The U.S. invaded Afghanistan to “punish” the Taliban and to repair the Afghani government in hopes of curing future hostility.

However, Hill said he conceded the U.S. falls short in installing “good” governments.

“We set out, in an ambitious way, to solve the problems that were centuries in the making,” he said. “We tried to solve them in decades.” 

The rebuilding of Afghanistan was hindered by the U.S.’s failure to consider political and cultural differences, he said.

“When you have the sense you can impose your will, as Americans have felt, you can gloss over the facts of how you should approach things,” he said. “I think there was a bit of hubris.”

Nonetheless, Hill said the U.S. shouldn’t abandon Afghanistan. The challenge of fixing “regressive” social structures requires patience though, he said.

American politicians and media currently blame Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, for impeding a westernized Afghani government. However, Hill said progress requires time and patience.

“My suggestion early on was stop complaining about (Karzai),” he said. “We weren’t going to get some Thomas Jefferson-type guy to come out with a wig and be president.”

Hill said he predicts war among Islamic regions, including Afghanistan, will fade by 2020. He noted Islamic conflict occurs in waves throughout history.

“I don’t think it is Afghanistan’s fate to be at war for the rest of history,” he said. “All wars end.”

Hill said historians would likely consider Afghanistan a war of necessity, and Iraq a war of choice. 

“There’s been a notion that Iraq was the bad war, but Afghanistan was a good war,” he said.  “I’ll go further in saying some historians may call Iraq a mistake.”

The U.S. mistakenly believed Iraq would be a democratic example that would “radiate” among the region, convincing other countries to change.

“We wanted to make Iraq a shining city on hill,” he said. “The purple ink was a photo-op.”

At the core of the mistake, was a failure to understand the Shia and Sunni relationship that should not be merely simplified to a “Hatfield v McCoy” skirmish.

Iraq, a Shiite dominated country in a Sunni dominated region, was not the best choice for the poster child of democracy, Hill said.

“Essentially, Iraq is the now black sheep of the Middle East,” he said. “Middle Eastern countries see the Shiite Iraq as a threat.”

The region is further complicated by the ever-changing history of peace, conflicts and friendships between the countries.

“When two (countries) have bordered each other for 2,000 years – things have happened,” he said.

Nowadays, Hill said much of the American foreign policy in the Middle East is focused on Syria, a country torn apart by a civil war between various Shiite and Sunni factions for the past three years.

“We have a sort of proxy war going in Syria,” he said.

The U.S. cannot afford to stand on the sideline, he said. Radical groups associated with Al-Qaeda that viewed Syria as up for grabs joined the conflict.

“Revolutions may start with peaceful, nice people. Those peaceful, nice people soon disappear,” he said. “Just asking a country to listen to their better angels doesn’t always work.”

However, unlike Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. pursued a diplomatic path in Syria. 

“The public is dead set against boots on the ground in Syria,” Hill said.

Though he was no friend of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president accused of massacring civilians, Hill said negotiation with him is necessary.

“This not a question of lining up with people you like, it’s about whose there and then you have to settle,” he said.

Last month, talks began in Geneva between the Assad regime and the opposition leaders who wish to replace the regime with a peaceful government. 

It is within the interest of the U.S. to act as moderator, he said. The civil war could spread to neighboring countries and worsen a problem the rest of the world would not be able to ignore.

Hill’s lecture fee was paid by USF’s Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies.