Ex-Ambassador To Iraq Weighs In On Talking To 'Monsters'

Read Hill's 'New York Times' Op-Ed

As the death toll in Syria climbs and critics blast the Obama administration for not taking more decisive action, former ambassador Christopher Hill points instead to a failure of diplomacy in an op-ed in the New York Times. Hill talks about what the U.S. faces in facilitating talks between the regime and Syrian rebels.

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As the death toll in Syria climbed over the past two years, many critics charge that President Obama has not done enough to aid the opposition. In an op-ed in today's New York Times, former Ambassador Christopher Hill argues that the administration has made a serious mistake, but, quote, "The real shortcoming of the administration's policy on Syria has not been an unwillingness to engage militarily, but the ill-advised decision in August 2011 to preclude the possibility of a diplomatic resolution involving all sides."

In other words, says Ambassador Hill, the error was to call for the removal of President Bashar al-Assad. Christopher Hill joins us now from his office at the University of Denver, where he's dean of the School of International Studies. He's former ambassador to Iraq, Macedonia, Poland and South Korea, a former assistant secretary of state as well. Nice to talk with you again.

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Good to talk to you.

CONAN: And you concede in your piece that President Assad should be tried for war crimes. How can he be part of a diplomatic solution?

HILL: Well, that's not a concession on my part. I'm simply pointing out that the conflict in Syria is a pretty complex one. And the issue often is not how do you get rid of these guys, these dictators, but how do they get there in the first place. And when we start looking into Syria, you see that it wasn't quite the same pattern as Moammar Gadhafi or even the situation in Egypt or some of these other places associated with the Arab Spring, you have a very complex problem. And to this day, some couple years later, you have a lot of people fighting on Assad's side, and they're not fighting on his side because they like him, support him, want to see him continue.

They just fear the future even more than they fear him. And so I think the problem was that in calling for his ouster, we didn't explain what would happen the day after he's gone.

CONAN: And how do we say that? I mean the United States has very limited influence in Syria.

HILL: Well, first of all, I don't want to presume that I'm smarter on this than the people doing it. We have a lot of talented people working on this problem. But I do believe there needs to be a greater effort on the part of the international community, and I would expect the U.S. to play a kind of leading role in this in kind of articulating what the political arrangements will be in the future. For example, in Bosnia, we had something called a contact group plan. It was something hammered out between the U.S., the Brits, the French, the Germans, the Italians.

We showed it to the various factions within Bosnia, and we came up with a plan. And over the course of months, and frankly, even years, we got to a plan that every one kind of more or less agreed with or didn't object to. And then we went, finally, to a conference known as the Dayton - at Dayton, Ohio, and we were able to kind of put this together. I don't see any effort to get down some of these political arrangements in writing. I mean I've heard people talk about we need an election.

OK, we need an election. But often, in the context of a sectarian situation, the election will simply be if the Sunnis have a majority, they're going to win the election. We already know that, even without an election. What we need is a better definition of what Syria is going to look like so that people like the Alawites, the Christians, the Kurds, the Druze, et cetera, all of whom have concerns about this - the Sunni majority - that they can feel comfortable that life after Assad is actually going to be better for them.

CONAN: And we will get to those ideas in just a moment. But it's important you mentioned the example of Dayton. At - in this process, you were talking with some very bad people, some of whom would later, in fact, go to be tried for war crimes.

HILL: Well, you have no idea. I mean the sense you had of wanting to take a shower after talking to Slobodan Milosevic. But what we're trying to do is kind of deal with the practicalities of working out what - working out the details of what Bosnia was going to look like in the future. What you want to tell people who are out there in trenches, literally in trenches, you know, the shooting at other people in trenches, you want to tell them, hey, the political arrangements are already identified. Why are you fighting at this point? Shouldn't you be at a table talking about these political arrangements, how are they going to be implemented, because they've already been agreed.

There is no point in going out and shooting anyone over something that's already been agreed. So you want people to understand what that future is going to look like. And I think there, in the case of Syria, which is as bad as complex and difficult a problem as there is in the Middle East, we need to do a little better job of explaining to Syrians what the future looks like.

CONAN: And who should be involved in this process of hammering out the future of Syria?

HILL: Well, you know, I know it's customary not to be particularly enthused about the Russians these days, but I think they ought to be part of that process. I think the United States should be a big part of that process. You know, I'm not one to say that the United States can solve everyone's problems, but, you know, we need to be part of it, and part of it in a big way.

I would suggest the European Union needs to be there. I would suggest the Arabs need to be there in various configurations. So I think we need to do that. And I think we need to be much more cognizant of the fact that Syrians are really fearful of the future even more than they are of this hideous Assad regime.

And I want to make very clear, I have absolutely no sense that this guy, Assad, should, you know, lead that country in the future. I'm just saying, from the practical task of trying to enlist various factions, you might start with doing that rather than delisting various factions.

CONAN: Well, it was interesting, the - I think the first effort involved the Kofi Annan effort sponsored by the United Nations. And they're broke down over the insistence by Mr. Assad and his backers, including Russia, that he be part of the transition.

HILL: Yeah. Well, there's no question that Assad made Kofi's job almost impossible. But, you know, we're now well over a year after that, and I think if there are better coordination with whoever the envoy is, if it's another Kofi, if it's Secretary Kerry or some former senate colleague, say, of Secretary Kerry, I think you could kind of work with the Russians to say, OK, we're going to propose this. Assad won't like it. But Russians, do you agree with what we're doing? If you do, we'd like you to put a little heat on Assad to get him at least not to explicitly oppose it.

So it amounts to, you know, an American football. You gather up in a huddle and, you know, somebody goes long, somebody goes short, somebody stays back and blocks. I mean, this kind of thing, we need to put together this as a team. And I think the Russians could have a role, especially on the question of getting this terrible guy, Assad, to go along with these things.

CONAN: And you outlined some of the alternatives, a centralized Syria with - in this case, post-conflict via a Sunni-dominated government. You could have a federated Syria with different states, one for the Alawites, one for the Kurds, one for the Sunnis, one for the Druze and various things like that. Or the other alternative, of course, is we end up with a mess.

HILL: Yeah. You could have - there are all kinds of political solutions. You know, political scientists can do this stuff in their sleep. I mean, you could have a bicameral system where you have a parliament that is a parliament of nations where you have an Alawite representative and a Kurdish representative, et cetera. Or you could just go with one person, one vote type systems. There are means to deal with this. But we haven't articulated one that we, together with some other countries, can support.

Instead, it has gone to this nasty question of how to exclude this very, very nasty guy. So I think a little more focus on what would happen in the future. I think Kofi Annan had some good ideas, but too much of it was related to the issue of let's have elections. And I don't think people in these circumstances are looking for elections because they already know who is going to win, because people vote according to their sectarian affiliations. So they already know who the winner is. They want to know what the system will be in the future.

CONAN: And is this idea of Secretary Kerry's of a U.S.-Russian-sponsored conference in, I guess, about a month or so, maybe, is that a good start?

HILL: Well, you know, call me an old fashioned guy, but I like to see the U.S. and the Russians figuring out areas where we can cooperate and going at it from there. So I think it's a good idea. But I do have a little caution about the notion that you bring people together and they're going to hit the side of the head with the palm of their hand and say, oh. Now we see this other guy isn't so bad.

Actually, they've been murdering each other for a couple of years now. And so bringing people together isn't necessarily going to help. I think what's more important is not so much getting people around a table, as getting people around some ideas for what this crazy country is going to look like in the future.

CONAN: Again, going back to the example of Dayton, you said getting people together in one room did not work so well there.

HILL: Oh. You know, we had an opening banquet, which we had in this museum. I mean, it was an air museum, so, ironically, above the head of one the Serbs, we had a cruise missile, which had recently...

(LAUGHTER)

HILL: That was quite a coincidence. We didn't mean to do that. It had to do with the seating chart. But anyway, it all went very well and we saw that President Izetbegovic, the president of Bosnia, was talking to President Milosevic. So we thought, wow. This is going to be easier that we think, you know? Hold the food order. We think we can get out of here pretty quickly.

So the next day, we brought them all together, and they all screamed at each other so much so that I said to Holbrooke, we better not try this again. He said, you're not kidding. This could be the end of the whole conference. So we never did it again, until the very last day when we asked - when we had an agreement, and the three leaders of the three, what we called, warring factions, which a term they never liked, got together and actually initialed the Dayton Peace Accods.

CONAN: Holbrooke, of course, former - the late Richard Holbrooke...

HILL: Yes.

CONAN: ...the special envoy and former - and we miss him. The other part of this, though, this was after three years of terrible conflict. The atrocities are still accelerating in Syria.

HILL: Yes.

CONAN: Are people exhausted enough for this yet?

HILL: Well, that is a very good point because, often, you need people to be exhausted to really be more interested in peace than in war. But the Syrian conflict has been pretty horrific. I mean, it usually picks - pits one guy's armed faction against the other guy's civilians. So you have - in the case of Assad - essentially, his army is lobbying artillery shells into civilian areas. So this is pretty brutal stuff. You have lots of non-combatants being killed in this, so it is not easy to go from there to sit at a table.

So I would not advocate going to table immediately, but I do think it's fair to start talking about what the country is going to look like, put down some principles of what you think Syria could be in the future. And I think that could get people's attentions without having the sort of added element of people having to look across the table and see a killer of one a member of their family.

CONAN: We're speaking with former Ambassador Christopher Hill, the author of an op-ed in today's New York Times, "When to Talk to Monsters." You can find a link to that at our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. He served as ambassador to Iraq and many other nations: Macedonia, Poland, South Korea, and he is now dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And it's not just exhaustion, Ambassador. It's a belief on all sides that they cannot win on the battlefield.

HILL: Yeah. And I think that is beginning to dawn on people. There is this view that somehow if the U.S. launches air strikes on behalf of the rebels that this could somehow turn the tide. But I think if you're in the military and the Pentagon, you start looking at what exactly your target sets are going to be. You're going to see this as a pretty complex problem and then maybe air strikes are not going to solve it.

There's also the idea of a no-fly zone because the Assad forces have used air strikes on others. And there is no question that could have some impact on the ground, but none of these things are a sure bet. And the only sure bet is that they would - the first step in any of these things is an act of war, whether we like it or not.

CONAN: And imposing a no-fly zone is an act of war. You mentioned some people who ought to be involved in this conversation. You did not mention a player with a major stake in Syria, and that's Iran.

HILL: You know, I think that's a tough problem. And what you don't want is a situation where, in inviting Iran, you get into this whole question of whether the U.S. is now giving Iran a pass on its nuclear program. But I think there needs to be a way to handle that. I think you need to get that Iranian perspective expressed so whether you have some proxy member sitting there or whether you simply say, look, we have a huge problem with Iran over nuclear, but with respect to Syria, Iran needs to be at the table with the understanding that this doesn't mean anything, some kind of declaratory thing with the understanding, this doesn't mean anything with respect to our concerns about Iran and its nuclear program. But I think you would have a better chance at getting some kind of agreement if you had some kind of representation from Iran, whether Iranians or someone who is kind of talking for them.

You know, we went through this whole issue with Milosevic as well because we didn't want to talk to those Bosnian Serbs. So ultimately, we had a situation where Milosevic was speaking for them. Now, you may ask, you know, wasn't he the worst of the worst? But at the time, he was not indicted for war crimes the way a number of these Bosnian Serbs were.

CONAN: There is also the question that in Bosnia, we knew who could speak for each faction. We don't know that in Syria.

HILL: Well, that is a big problem with this opposition. And this is why I think Secretary Kerry has done a good job to bring in some energy there and to look at what kind of non-lethal assistance we can give to these people. I think that's important not just because they need non-lethal assistance, but as a means to get to know them a little better. And, you know, often, these people - the people you meet with who might reside outside of Syria are quite different from the people who are actually fighting in Syria. So I think the more contacts with them, the better.

CONAN: Given the scale of what's happened in terms of tens of thousands killed, given the escalating partisan-sectarian nature of this conflict, do you hold out much hope that diplomacy can play a constructive role?

HILL: Well, diplomacy doesn't always work. And believe me, I could testify to that. I dealt with the North Koreans for four years. And even the Serb/Kosovo issue didn't actually end with a diplomatic agreement, although we would not have gotten the Europeans on board for NATO action, had we not gone through the diplomatic process. But I would say the hope of getting a diplomatic agreement in Syria is certainly probably greater than getting a military victory of one side or the other.

Plus, even if you get a military victory, you still have the same problems of what this thing is going to look like after someone claims victory. So I think we do need to give this our best shot, get everyone who wants to see a solution in Syria together. And if the net result of this has been to somehow improve U.S.-Russian ties, which could use a couple of upticks, so be it.

I mean, that was certainly the upshot of the - of our North Korean negotiations. We didn't dissuade them from nuclear programs. But we sure as heck got the U.S. and China on the same page. And, you know, sometimes things take a lot time in diplomacy. But I think we're seeing some of the benefits of that now several years later.

CONAN: Ambassador Hill, thanks very much.

HILL: My pleasure.

CONAN: Christopher Hill joined us from the University of Denver, where he's dean of the School of International Studies. Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here. And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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