Along with his assignment as ambassador to Iraq under Barack Obama, Hill has served in the role under former presidents George W. Bush, in Korea, and Bill Clinton, in Poland and Macedonia. He currently serves as the Dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.
“It's understandable really that there's a certain amount of isolationism that has crept in the U.S.,” said Hill in his opening statement. “I think it's very important to understand that during these times we have to know why we're out there and it's very important that universities such as this one really keep the focus on what we need to do. Whether we like it or not, we're going to be involved in these things for a long time.”
Over the course of an hour, Hill took an in-depth look at each of the three countries, described as the “black sheep of the Middle East”.
Hill's reflections on Afghanistan, which he felt was a necessary response to 9/11, was of a difficult war made impossible by poor strategy.
“I think we set out in a very ambitious and holistic way to try to solve all the problems which are centuries in the making and try to solve them in a decade. We had a concept developed in Iraq and then we tried to transplant into Afghanistan of counterinsurgency and a sub-concept in that of something called a surge. So the people of Washington get pretty excited about these concepts, and when you look at these problems and try to see it as some type of complex algebraic equation, it looks quite doable and sometimes it's far more difficult and I think if you look at the fine print of the counterinsurgency, it talks about creating good governance. It also talks about being willing to stay a long time. I think this president has found and I see this all over the place that people think that we've done enough for Afghanistan. The polling data has made clear that people don't want to stay.”
On Afghanistan's controversial president Hamid Karzai, Hill was assertive in maintaining a working relationship.
“Someone like Karzai was 100 percent predictable before you go in. You weren't going to get Thomas Jefferson emerging in a powdered wig as the new president of Afghanistan. You're going to get a Karzai. So if you don't like him, you shouldn't have been there in the first place.”
When asked to predict the future of the country by the end of the decade, Hill guessed a peaceful but very poor country with better relations with India and far away from the front pages of American papers.
On Iraq, Hill blamed the war's failure on poor timing and lack of concern given to the Shia/Sunni tensions in the region.
“I think it was a real mistake of analysis to say we need to pacify that region. We need to make the kind of democratic example that will somehow radiate to other countries in the region. That this democracy will make Iraq this sort of shining city on the hill and the added advantage of taking down someone who had symbolized the brutality of that region, Saddam Hussein. Then we failed to understand a very simple thing, which was Iraq was a Shia majority country. … We understood that under Saddam Hussein there had been a kind of secular trend in Iraq. So we saw the Shias and Sunnis and thought they were all Iraqis. … We saw that Iraq was a more urbanized society. It has enormous potential natural wealth. Somehow if we managed to do that we will create this thing that will radiate democracy.”
Hill felt that the sectarianism that engulfed the country was more of an era of time than a staple of Iraq's history, referencing the fact the fact that during the time of the Cold War, the regions that today see the most sectarian tension during that period were hotbeds of Communist rhetoric. Hill also noted that Iraq has become isolated in the Middle East, with fears by the surrounding countries of both emboldening the Shia population and movements towards democracies.
On the Syrian civil war, which Hill suggested played an active role in the recent troubles of Iraq's Al Anbar region, the former ambassador was critical of America's rush to pick a side in the conflict.
“Saying we're not dealing with Assad, in my humble opinion, was a big mistake. Not because I think Assad is a reasonable guy, he's not at all reasonable. He's a terrible person. But the effect of it was not to marginalize him, it was to marginalize us. When the United States is reduced to the task of trying to referee among little groups, the small Syrian opposition groups, trying to get them to work together, that's not enough of a role for us. … This is not a question of lining up with people you like, it's a question of finding a settlement.”
On the potential for a resolution of the conflict, Hill felt that Russia would play the strongest role in forging an agreement and the idea of removing Assad should be set aside in the early stages of discussions. Hill also decried Saudi Arabia in not taking a stronger role in stabilizing the region, traditionally the role of Egypt and Turkey, instead of taking a sectarian stance.