Reflection on the Arab Spring
April 4, 2012
VAIL – When people talk about the Middle East they usually say things like, “it’s complicated.”
It isn’t, says Christopher Hill, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq.
“Arab Spring now seems to be morphing into asking what we do with Syria,” Hill said. “The U.S. media has turned Syria into Darth Vader attacking Ewok villages.”
Hill is speaking Thursday night about Arab Spring and a number of other topics for the Vail Symposium’s lecture series.
His take on Syria is also uncomplicated.
“I’ll probably make the case for non-intervention,” he said.
He can also talk about where we are in Iraq and where we’re not in Afghanistan, he said.
Hill is now Dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at The University of Denver, a position he has held since September 2010.
But before that, the man was almost everywhere people were trying to blow each other up in the name of freedom and peace.
He was finishing up his diplomatic stint with the North Koreans, where he was sent after he finished in Poland. He keeps a rocket fragment on his desk from the time someone tried to blow up his convoy in Masuria, Poland.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called him in and asked him to do one more thing. He thought he’d be writing another report on something like “Whither North Korea” – understandable because headed the U.S. delegation to the Six Party Talks on the North Korean nuclear conundrum.
Faster than you can say, “Because she asked so nicely,” he agreed to be the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq.
It’s not like Iraq opened his eyes; they were open already.
“It’s not as complicated as people say it is,” Hill said.
Hill said Americans seem to think that if those vying to lead the Arab world could be secular and not sectarian – you know, more like us – life would be good.
“We’ve always supported people who wear neckties over those who wear turbans,” Hill patiently explained.
“The guys with the neckties turned out to be as intractably murderous as those with the turbans,” Hill said.
The divisions go back thousands of years he said.
“It’s important to understand that you’re dealing with fault lines in cultures that pre-date the American notion of dictatorship and democracy,” Hill said. “You have to appreciate that this predates even the Israeli/Arab conflicts.”
He wrote an op-ed about Arab Spring, titled “Obama of Arabia.” He broke it out a month ago, read it again and decided he was still correct about it.
“Not since 1989 has the world seen such an all-consuming, all-engulfing wildfire of freedom and democracy, whose burning passions are sweeping across a region vast and old and desperately in need of reform. From the Maghreb to the Levant to the Arabian Peninsula, Arab history is on the move. A new generation of leadership seems poised to take over,” Hill wrote.
The Arab world is experiencing a tectonic cultural shift in generational attitudes, gender relations, and urban-rural tensions, he wrote.
And it’s much more than a battle between Tweeters and non-Tweeters, between those with and without Facebook profiles, Hill said. Tribalism and clan conflict help determine people’s willingness to take to the streets.
“There is at least one motivation behind the Arab revolts that permeates Western politics as well: The urge to forget the facts, the risks, and the future, and just throw the rascals out,” Hill said.
In some cases, those rascals and their cronies have stolen much of the national wealth, Hill said.
“There is much to respect in the ‘throw the rascals out’ approach. Unfortunately, it does not always lead to more democracy,” Hill said.
Hill is a four-time ambassador, nominated by three presidents. He served in Iraq from April 2009 until August 2010.
From 2005-2009, Hill served as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and he was the U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea, Poland (2000-2004), Ambassador to the Republic of Macedonia (1996-1999) and Special Envoy to Kosovo (1998-1999).
Prior to joining the Foreign Service, Hill served as a Peace Corps volunteer where he supervised credit unions in rural Cameroon, West Africa.
“As the former ambassador to Iraq, he’ll have a unique perspective on Arab Spring,” said Liana Moore, Vail Symposium director. “We have been developing a partnership with the Korbel School to develop a series of programs, and we’re proud to offer this one.”
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.