WASHINGTON — The Senate on Tuesday confirmed President Barack Obama's choice to be the next U.S. ambassador to Iraq despite fierce opposition from conservatives who complained about the nominee's diplomatic record.
Senators voted 73-23 to confirm career diplomat Christopher Hill as Washington's new envoy to Baghdad over the strenuous objections of Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan. Brownback had stalled the approval process for three weeks.
Brownback accused Hill, the Bush administration's chief negotiator with North Korea, of ignoring North Korean human rights abuses and agreeing to a flawed disarmament pact with the regime.
A small group of Brownback's fellow Republicans joined him in voting against Hill on those grounds, because of his lack of experience in the Middle East and over concern that he might have overstepped his authority in negotiating with the North Koreans.
But a majority of senators decided that Hill's confirmation to the critical post should not be delayed any longer. Many argued that Hill, a 32-year veteran of the foreign service, is qualified to run the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, America's largest overseas diplomatic mission.
"We need an ambassador in Iraq, we need this ambassador in Iraq," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "Ambassador Hill is a proven, expert negotiator, a problem-solver and he is one of the best diplomats we have."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Hill's confirmation was long overdue and that he would help bring the U.S. closer to achieving a political solution to Iraq's troubles. Hill, he added, "has successfully tackled some of the most complex diplomatic challenges in the world, and both America and Iraq will benefit from his experience and expertise."
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, bucked the opposition of some in his party to vote in favor of Hill. "It is important to get our next ambassador in place as quickly as possible," Lugar said.
Lugar and others said Hill could not be held responsible for North Korean violations of the nuclear agreement and said he had ably negotiated with the Stalinist country, displaying skills that will be needed in Iraq.
The Senate had voted 73-17 on Monday to end Brownback's filibuster on Hill's confirmation but agreed to allow up to 30 additional hours of debate on the matter, which could have run until late Tuesday night.
Brownback spoke several times on Tuesday against Hill but did not object to a motion to end the debate and vote in the late afternoon. Brownback said Hill had ignored "a human rights disaster in North Korea" as well as made numerous, ill-advised concessions to the North Korean government in the nuclear talks that ended in "horrific failure."
"We should not put the individual who negotiated this bad deal into our most important diplomatic post," he said, adding that North Korea had recently launched a missile, walked away from the six-nation disarmament talks, kicked out U.S. and U.N. nuclear experts and jailed two American journalists.
Brownback has introduced legislation that would add North Korea back to the State Department's list of "state sponsors of terrorism." The North was removed from the list last October as part of the negotiations that Hill was leading in his previous job as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.
Arizona's Republican Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl also spoke against Hill's confirmation, alleging he may have overstepped his instructions in the North Korea nuclear talks and that he would require on-the-job training because he has no prior Mideast experience and does not speak Arabic.
"Our next ambassador must hit the ground running," McCain said.
Hill had previously served as ambassador to South Korea, Poland and Macedonia and was the special U.S. envoy to Kosovo. The last three U.S. ambassadors to Iraq, all named by President George W. Bush, supported Hill's nomination.