As 2012 begins, two countries of strategic interest to the United States are launching new chapters in their troubled histories.
With the official end of Operation Iraqi Freedom in December, a sovereign Iraq will attempt to negotiate democracy without assistance from the U.S. military. Meanwhile, North Korea begins life under Kim Jong Un, who assumed leadership of the country after his father, Kim Jong Il, died in December.
For Christopher Hill, dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and a State Department veteran experienced in negotiating with the North Korean government, these may be fresh starts, but they're also extensions of complex narratives.
In December 2011, just as the last American troops were packing up their body armor and heading for home, Hill journeyed to Kurdistan, one of Iraq's most peaceful provinces. There, he met with Iyad Allawi, head of the Sunni-backed Iraqiya political bloc. "Certainly when I was there," Hill says, "I got a sense of the deteriorating relationship between [Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki and some of his coalition partners."
That deterioration, months in the making, became front-page news when, just days after the U.S. departure, al-Maliki, a Shia, called for the arrest of the Sunni vice president and asked parliament to fire the Sunni deputy prime minister. These moves were followed by a wave of deadly explosions in several of Baghdad's predominantly Shia neighborhoods.
In the west, much of the pundit class was quick to link escalating sectarian tensions to the exit of U.S. troops. But Hill thinks these conclusions were hasty, if not downright wrong. For one thing, he recalls, "in my waning weeks there (as ambassador in summer of 2010), I was constantly trying to set up meetings between Allawi and al-Maliki."
His efforts were stymied, a sign even then that the coalition government was struggling.
"The U.S. press has done a disservice to readers," he says. Media accounts that draw direct correlations between departing U.S. troops and rising strife suggest that the latter would not have happened without the former. "It is not at all clear to me what an extra increment of U.S. troops would be able to do about this," Hill says, noting that the Sunni-Shia divide, which has persisted for centuries, was never likely to be resolved by American soldiers.