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Up a Very Steep Hill

The Republican’s attempt to take down Obama’s proposed Iraq ambassador is quixotic at best.

Although Barack Obama has had plenty of domestic fights with Republicans over everything from earmarks to his stimulus plan, when it comes to his foreign policy, partisan politics have been relatively quiet. No longer. A cadre of Senate Republicans are now trying to bring down Obama’s pick for ambassador to Iraq, Chris Hill, But because the GOP is less interested in how Hill might handle Iraq than in venting grievances about his personality, and his role directing the Bush administration's North Korea policy, their surprise offensive appears to be stalling. Obama will get his choice. And, for reasons I'll explain, Richard Holbrooke's influence over Obama's foreign policy will expand another notch.

To be sure, Hill is something of an irascible character. In New York Times reporter David Sanger's new book, The Inheritance, Hill--a veteran foreign-service officer who has been the Bush administration's point man dealing with North Korea since 2005--mocks the hard-line Bushies he more or less defied over the past couple of years by pursuing direct contacts with the Pyongyang. "These assholes don't know how to negotiate," Sanger reports him saying. "Everything is Appomattox. It's just 'Come out with your hands up.' It’s not even really Appomattox, because at the end of Appomattox they let the Confederates keep their horses." Hill was also supposedly known for referring to North Korea as "a diddy-shit little country." Last year, when Fox News ran with a story Hill considered false, he barraged the reporter with in-your-face emails: “Just to be clear. I am calling your piece completely inaccurate. And since you are unable to provide a single named source--not a one, I have to wonder what you have been drinking (or smoking since you are obviously not a conservative).”

Hill's tart tongue has offended the sensibilities of five conservative Republican senators (Sam Brownback, Jon Kyl, James Inhofe, John Ensign, and Kit Bond), who yesterday wrote Obama complaining about Hill's sense of etiquette, and asking that his nomination be nixed. "It has come to our attention," they write, that Hill referred to his superiors "in dismissive and derogatory terms, conduct wholly unbecoming a sitting U.S. official." But the senators dare not repeat the naughty word in question. "While we prefer not to list the statements in this letter, we would be happy to furnish you with specific examples, as necessary."

Hill’s opponents don’t just want to wash his mouth out with soap; they have a more substantive argument as well. They say he lacks experience in the Middle East and has recently alienated some key US allies in Asia. The trouble is, his critics don't have a leg to stand on. The GOP's main complaint seems to be that Hill, an expert on Eastern Europe (he's a former U.S. ambassador to Poland), won't be able to haggle effectively in the Middle East bazaar. Hill doesn't speak Arabic, for instance--admittedly a drawback for someone whose job requires intimate dealings with Iraqi leaders. ("Do I wish he didn't have a learning curve?" one Democratic Iraq expert, who offered lukewarm support for Hill, recently asked me. "Yes, I do.") But these Republicans are in no position to be making that case. As Hillary Clinton pointedly noted yesterday, the three Republicans who first opposed Hill--John McCain, Lindsay Graham, and Brownback--all voted in 2004 to confirm John Negroponte as ambassador to Iraq, even through Negroponte had just as little experience and linguistic ability. At the time McCain called Negroponte "highly qualified."

Even worse for Hill's Republican opponents, three former Iraq ambassadors in the Bush years are now backing Hill. "We need his experience during this crucial time in Iraq," explains a letter signed by Negroponte, Zalmay Khalilizad, and Ryan Crocker (the latter of whom is a minor deity to pro-war conservatives). "His previous experiences will serve him greatly when addressing extreme challenges in Iraq." Meanwhile, Dick Lugar, the respected ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also supports Hill.

But Republicans aren't likely to abandon the fight. Why? Because what really bothers them is Hill's management since 2005 of multiparty negotiations over North Korea's nuclear program. In the conservative narrative, Hill gave Kim Jong Il what he most wants--respect and credibility--without winning an end to Kim's nuclear program in return. In June 2007, for instance, Hill flew to Pyongyang to meet with a top nuclear negotiator there, the first visit by a U.S. official in more than four years. By then Hill had essentially been given free reign to deal with Pyongyang by Secretary of State Condi Rice, leaving the administration's Cheneyite wing frozen out. Indeed, in the late Bush era, Hill became a kind of bete noire for Cheney. When Hill brokered a deal last summer that would remove North Korea from an administation list of state sponsors of terrorism in return for Pyongyang's official declaration of its nuclear program, Cheney was asked about the rumored agreement in an interview. He reportedly fell into a smouldering silence before saying, "I'm not going to be the one to announce this decision"--and then he walked out of the room.

Conservatives say Kim was granted the satisfaction of high-level diplomatic contact with the U.S. in return for concessions that he continually finds a way to delay or weasel out of. Kim Jong Il remains a long way from disarming. He suffered no apparent major consequences for helping Syria construct a nuclear reactor (which was destroyed by Israel). The terror-list move came as a surprise to Japan and South Korea, both of whom were irate as a result. "This has nothing to do with Iraq and everything with what conservatives believe to be a failed U-turn on U.S. policy towards North Korea," says a Senate Democratic foreign policy aide. But in assessing Hill's performance, it's important to remember just how little leverage he had. By the time he took over the North Korea portfolio in 2005, Pyongyang already had the bomb. The Iraq fiasco had badly undermined America's diplomatic and military leverage. Moving North Korea in the direction of denuclearization, which Hill has done, was probably the most one could have hoped for.

Meanwhile, if Hill wins, it will be a victory not just for Obama but also for Richard Holbrooke. Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan has been a mentor of Hill's dating back to the 1990s. The two spent many hours working side-by-side in negotiations with Balkan dictators, and Holbrooke's memoir of his days as a Balkan envoy, To End a War, describes Hill as "brilliant" and "fearless" (as well as, yes, "argumentative"). More recently, Holbrooke consulted with Hill during his negotiations with North Korea. Holbrooke also served as something of a diplomatic fixer. When Hill needed cover for a meeting with North Korean diplomats in Germany, Holbrooke invited him to speak at the American Academy in Berlin, which the latter chaired at the time. Hill just happened to bump into a North Korean counterpart at the event.

Now Holbrooke, the infamous bureaucratic operator, will have a protege in Baghdad--an outcome some people think he engineered by bumping Obama's first choice for the job, the retired General Anthony Zinni, after Zinni had already been congratulated on the appointment by Vice President Joe Biden. ("It's the only rational explanation for the abrupt retraction of the job offer to Zinni," says the Senate aide. "The Obama people are not that amateurish and incompetent.")

What implications Holbrooke's boosted influence might have for Obama's Iraq policy aren't clear. But given Hill’s support from the likes of Lugar and Crocker, it seems unlikely that the Republicans' contrived case against Hill will be enough to sustain the 41 votes needed to filibuster his confirmation. It’s possible that a backchannel approach to Obama would have been more productive. But maybe the problem, as Hill might put it, is that those [expletive deleted] don't know how to negotiate.

Michael Crowley is a senior editor of The New Republic.