3 Great Reasons to Read Outpost: Life on the Frontlines of American Diplomacy - Book Review

Always interested in government, politics and current affairs, I typically stick with reading the news and do some online research versus reading biographies. However, the memoir Outpost: Life on the Frontlines of American Diplomacy caught my eye and after reading a few early reviews, I had to read it. It was a good choice.

Former Ambassador Christopher Hill first arrived on my radar screen when he led the Six Party Talks in an attempt to bring an end to North Korean nuclear weapon production. In addition to the U.S., the effort included Japan, China, Russia, South Korea and North Korea, and Hill was picking up where his predecessor left off.  Nothing is easy with the N. Koreans, and Hill’s work was cut out for him.  But not just with the Pyongyang - working with the other countries had its own challenges.  Oh, and there is our own government — no easy task there either.

Hill became memorable to me for his candor and fearlessness in front of the camera and in the news.  He would reveal more than most without the typical political double-speak too often heard in Washington.  Regardless of assignment, as a true Foreign Service Officer (FSO), his professional and personal mission aligned to uphold the best interests of the United States, while taking on the often unpleasant task of dealing with some of the most despicable people in the world.  Compromise, not perfection. Security and calm, instead of political agenda. An all but impossible assignment.

So here are three of the reasons to read Outpost:

1. Reminder of recent history and insight from one who helped shape the outcomes - Hill served first in the Peace Corps, then in the foreign service of the State Department from 1977 through 2010. He was instrumental in the Dayton Peace Accords, negotiations with the North Koreans and in Iraq, with multiple assignments in between. His memoir provides an insiders account of actual conversations that occurred during and around the diplomacy that took place, giving the reader a reminder of history and a perspective we’ll never experience in a history book.

2. Reality check of a complicated landscape - We are privy to a perspective on the difficulties of being one of the most powerful nations in the world — life and death decisions, competing agendas and political posturing. And that’s all at home in the United States. Imagine juggling that along with the challenges of the country or region where he was assigned.  

With diplomatic politeness and genuine respect for all the Secretaries of State for whom he served, we do see clear disdain for some politicians, such as former Vice President Cheney, and carefully selected wording around Hilary Clinton’s memory loss of events that took place during her arrival to Bosnia in 1996. Hill genuinely seems to respect those on both sides of the aisle as long as they are on the side of doing what is in the best interest of the U.S., instead of political motivations.

3. Well-Written and entertaining tome - Not only do we hear the background on decisions made and descriptions of world leaders’ personalities, we also experience Hill’s adventures from place to place. Among them, angry mobs breaking through an embassy’s gates, touring a nuclear facility in North Korea and high-speed jet skiing with Kurdish President Barzani.

So obvious by now, I’m an admirer of Christopher Hill.  Whether I agree with every decision is almost irrelevant, because I believe he was guided by integrity and diplomatic duty regardless of whom screamed the loudest. 

Be warned, he skewers what he refers to as neoconservatives, discusses the massive dysfunction in Iraq (he was Ambassador there 2009-2010) and doesn’t shy away from wagging a finger at the press. Hill’s criticisms are politically focused, whether overseas or at home (and it was usually at home). There are some revealing conversations that allow the reader to see behind closed doors, reminding us that our own country’s systems and problems are immense.  While there is so much good we can do (and certainly have done), agendas can be sabotaged or abandoned depending on the political wind, a previous transgression or reprisal.

Conversely, Hill warmly discusses his relationships with his mentors, accomplished diplomats Lawrence Eagleburger and Richard Holbrooke, as well as the teams he worked so closely with in both the State Department and the military. There are humorous enumerations of his experiences with Mother Teresa, an encounter with an eager Albanian who mentioned he is a good friend of Chris Hill…to Chris Hill, not realizing who he was, when looking for work, and his bizarre and brief interview with Richard Holbrooke to oversee relations in the Balkans.

Hill’s memoir is an entertaining, adventure.  For the most part, Outpost is a page turner and an excellent peek into American diplomacy.

Published: 2014

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Vickie’s Review: 4 stars