ISIS is a paradox - it is an anti-modernist movement that rejects much of what the rest of the world regards as civilized today, while at the same time it is trying to destroy all signs of civilizations older than Islam - as it most recently attempted with the destruction of artifacts in the 3,000 year-old Assyrian city of Nimrud in northern Iraq. "They want to return life to the seventh century (when Islam was founded)," said Chris Hill, whose last job was Ambassador in Iraq before retiring from 33 years in the State Department. Hill, who was also ambassador to South Korea, had some grim predictions for the future of North Korea - he said it doesn't have one - and he argued that one of the most endangered countries in the Middle East today is the apparently peaceful and affluent Saudi Arabia.
Dealing with ISIS, Hill told a LAWAC lunch on Monday, requires a delicate balancing act by the US - on the one hand we need to support the Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga forces in their fight against ISIS, but on the other hand he said it would be a mistake to bring in US ground forces. "Once you put in troops, we (the US) become the issue - that would galvanize ISIS further." And while he laid a lot of the blame for the rise of ISIS on the inability of Sunnis in Iraq to accept a Shiite government, Hill conceded that the former Shiite prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, shared a lot of the blame for marginalizing the Sunnis when he was in power. Calling Maliki an unappealing leader - "if he had charisma, it dried up a long time ago", he said it was unfortunate that Iraq did not look to the example of South Africa after apartheid, when the majority black government of Nelson Mandela realized it needed the expertise of the white minority to help make the country run. Maliki, by contrast, completely shut out the Sunni minority, some of whom gravitated to the Sunni extremist ISIS movement in revenge. When asked if the US should have completely withdrawn from Iraq in 2011, Hill said "in hindsight we should have stayed longer." A residual US force might not have been able to stop the rise in violence, but at least we would not have been taken by surprise by the rise of ISIS and would have seen it coming.
Hill described the relationship between the US and South Korea as second to none, still heavily informed by the US military intervention to prevent the communist North Koreans from overrunning the country in 1950. He spent much of his time as ambassador and then as head of the US delegation in the Six Party Talks with North Korea trying to bring the two parts of the peninsula closer together, because he said that at some point North Korea would likely collapse. "I don't think there is much of a future for North Korea," said Hill. "I believe in the fullness of time that a country needs a point, a purpose, which can't just be the perpetuation of a line of power." He said he could not predict "when or how North Korea ends", but said that South Korea and the US needed a clear understanding of the division of roles in dealing with a collapsing regime to the north. "The US needs to go straight for their nuclear weapons and secure them, South Korea will have to handle governance, refugees and the probable humanitarian crisis."
Asked about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Hill observed that while he was serving in Iraq, "nobody talked about Palestine - the media leads us to believe there is greater camaraderie than in reality - the Palestinian issue is not as heartfelt in the rest of the Arab world as we think." The real issue in the Arab world, he said, is the Sunni-Shia divide. He said that the Palestinians would do well to stop asking for sympathy internationally, and instead start developing the Palestinian Authority into a stronger, more stable platform. "I think the Arab world has a lot to learn from Israel (on innovation in the economy)."
But he also was critical of the recent visit of the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to Washington: "As an American, I have always been careful not to go to other countries and tell them what to think. I have a problem with diplomats or leaders from other countries coming over here and telling us - in public - what to do."
On Saudi Arabia Hill said "just when you think things can't get worse, they get worse". Citing the recent death of the King, the advanced age of his successor, the takeover of Yemen on its southern border by a Shiite group of rebels, and the fact that it is one of the few countries in the world that has no form of parliament ("even North Korea has a parliament"), Hill said "I think Saudi Arabia is looking at some very serious problems - we may see some structural political change there in the next decade."