Ambassador Ryan Crocker remembers the Middle East
Tuesday, January 5, 2010
If you go
What: Former U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker
Where: Van Tassell Center, Wenatchee Valley College, 1300 Fifth St.
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
The first time Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker went to the Middle East, he did it without an escort of U.S. Marines.
The Spokane native was a junior at Whitman College when he took a marathon hitchhiking trip “basically from Amsterdam to Calcutta,” as he puts it. The time he spent in Iran and Afghanistan on that youthful jaunt cemented an interest in Mideast cultures, and when he joined the U.S. Foreign Service in 1971, he asked to serve in the region.
After that, especially with his first posting as ambassador to Lebanon in 1990, the embassy Marines were commonplace. Crocker was President George W. Bush’s last ambassador to Iraq, from 2007 until 2009, but before that he held the same function in Pakistan (2004-2007), Syria (1998-2001), Kuwait (1994-1997) and Lebanon (1990-1993) — politically sensitive regions that were key to U.S. interests abroad.
Crocker, 60, discusses his career in a public lecture Wednesday at Wenatchee Valley College. He retired last year, after partnering with Army Gen. David Petraeus to craft the strategies of the “surge” that flooded Iraq with new troops in 2007.
Crocker’s father was an Air Force officer with family roots in Spokane, who happened to be stationed at Fairchild Air Force Base when Crocker was born. The boy was raised in various countries, finally graduating from high school in Turkey. Today, Crocker and his wife Christine live near Spokane; he’ll take on a new job later this month as dean of George H.W. Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University.
The Wenatchee World: I’m assuming with a military family, the idea of joining the Foreign Service probably seemed a little more realistic than if you were raised on, say, a wheat farm in Spokane.
Ryan Crocker: It’s interesting. I’m not sure I’d say more realistic, but simply from military assignments overseas, I was aware that there was a Foreign Service and that it was an option, and that there was an examination for it, which I took my senior year in college. I’m not sure there was anything in my upbringing that uniquely qualified me to pass the exam, but like a lot of things in life, you’ve gotta know the opportunity is there to even begin to take advantage of it. That’ll be part of my message when I’m in Wenatchee.
WW: When you were doing your hitchhiking, what was the reception for a young American person traveling through the Middle East alone?
Crocker: It was extraordinarily hospitable. I did a lot of hitchhiking in this country as well, when I was in college, and I found that both in the U.S. at that time and in the Middle East, people who pick you up tend to be those who aren’t so high up on the income ladder themselves, and I’ve sometimes thought there was a correlation between how much you have and how much you’re willing to give to others. I found that when I got rides in the Middle East, it wasn’t just a ride — it was a ride and lunch, or a ride and dinner, or a ride and dinner and a place to sleep that night.
WW: Did you get a perception of how America as a whole was perceived through those journeys?
Crocker: The conversations that I recall didn’t focus on the overtly political. I do recall sometimes getting the comment that, “Oh, America, we hate your policies, but we love your people.” That actually hasn’t changed a lot over the decades.
WW: I assume you have a fluency in Arabic.
Crocker: Pretty good in Arabic, right.
WW: Was that something that we could have used more of at the start of the occupation in Iraq?
Crocker: I was in Iraq in the early phases as well, in 2003. Certainly, Arabic-speaking personnel were prized beyond rubies, and as we dealt with the challenges in subsequent years — certainly when I was there, ’07 to ’09 — trying to get people who spoke the language was a constant challenge. For something of the magnitude of Iraq, we just don’t have the people in the Foreign Service or elsewhere in the numbers that we need with those kinds of skills. Arabic is a tough language. ... It’s a problem, because you can’t go into those complex societies without some basic understanding of how they work, and that understanding to a large extent comes from language.
WW: And then you have to understand who has the right connections, who has the right clan influences, who can deliver votes, et cetera.
Crocker: And it’s a whole lot easier to sort those things out if you have the language. People relate to you differently, and your overall understanding, I think, is just a lot more acute.
WW: In your career, different administrations have looked to you as somebody who could deal with sensitive geographical areas — Syria, Kuwait, Pakistan, Iraq.
Crocker: The Foreign Service is a professional service, really like your military officer corps. Foreign Service officers serve the president, they serve the administration, and it should make no difference to a career Foreign Service officer whose administration it is. We swear an oath, just like our military colleagues, to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, and you do that absolutely without reference to the party in power, and it was my privilege to serve as ambassador to George H.W. Bush in Lebanon, to President Clinton twice, and to President George W. Bush twice. I’m also pleased that in my final weeks in Iraq, of course, I was working for President Obama.
WW: From a diplomatic standpoint, who’s more intractable, the Pakistanis or the Iraqis?
Crocker: They’re very different cultures, but the job of a diplomat is to figure out how cultures, societies and governments work, and then get in and engage. I enjoyed my time in Pakistan — it certainly was a challenging time. I probably was a little more at home in Iraq, again because of my experience in the language, but in Pakistan, of course, English is an official language, so it’s not the handicap it could be elsewhere. You just have to figure out, again, sort of how the societies work, because that tells you how governments work, and that’s how you go to work.
WW: Democratization is a stated goal in Mideast diplomacy, but how does that square with dealing with a region where democracy has never really had a strong foothold?
Crocker: Democracy is not really an exportable commodity. It has to develop in its own terms in different places. Of course, our own experience should tell any American that — we’re still working on our democracy. I don’t think we would have reacted terribly well if the French, at the time of independence, were to say, “OK, we were happy to help you with the fight, now we’re gonna teach you how to govern.” Iraq has a certain democratic tradition — under the British Mandate, there was an elected parliament, there were prime ministers elected by those parliaments, and Iraqis do fall back on that tradition. ... I think we can play a role in countries like Iraq and Pakistan in helping that process, but absolutely it has got to be an indigenous process, as it was in our own country.
WW: You came to your ambassadorship in Iraq in tandem with the 2007 troop surge. Did the increased troop levels make a difference in security, or was it the collaboration with the Anbar Awakening movement, where local sheiks turned against al-Qaida?
Crocker: Well, like most complex phenomena, it was a combination of a number of factors, certainly all of those. The troop surge did make a difference. It was even more important, of course, how the troops were employed. Their primary mission was population security — it wasn’t just a numbers increase, it was how they were used that changed — moving into populated urban areas with a mission to secure the population. In terms of the Anbar Awakening, the two were connected. There had been an effort in 2005 by western Anbar sheiks to stand up to al-Qaida, and they literally got their heads handed to them. Didn’t work. Al-Qaida just cut them down. But this time it was different — we were there in significantly greater numbers, we were engaged in the populated areas. This time, the Anbari tribes knew we had their backs. So there was a direct linkage between the surge and the Awakening.
WW: You came in with some goals, which you stated in your inaugural remarks in early 2007. You wanted to see the Iraqis “create mechanisms for amending the constitution, holding provincial elections, resolving the status of Kirkuk, (and) finalizing fair de-Baathification.” By the time you left, how far along had Iraq gotten?
Crocker: A fair degree down that road. We had successful provincial elections, of course, at the end of January. The stage is now set for national elections the first part of next year. So the electoral process is running reasonably well. De-Baathification reform legislation was passed in early 2008, and there too I think there’s been a lot of progress as the exaction of revenge for party membership has subsided — all parties realizing it’s not a healthy way to go — and you simply don’t hear much about retaliation against former Baathists who want to be part of the system. The constitution, again, that will be a work in progress for a very long time, as our own was. Certainly any amendment process will have to follow national elections and the formation of a new government. I think what we’ve seen over the last couple of years is that while Iraqis often complain about the constitution, all major factions have found a way to live with it, even in its current, un-amended form. Kirkuk will also be years in the sorting-out. What we have seen, though, away from the headlines, is that people who actually live there, of the different communities, have found ways of accommodating each other, and what you do not see in Kirkuk is any measurable levels of indigenous violence, for example. When there are attacks, they are normally sourced to al-Qaida, trying to stir up that kind of trouble, without success. Again, Iraq is going to be years and decades in its evolution, as America was. It took us almost nine decades after the Declaration of Independence, trying to hash these things out, and led us to a brutal civil war. I hope the Iraqis will move more swiftly and with less bloodshed, and I think they will, but our own history is a reminder of how difficult these issues are.
WW: Patience was one of the things you counseled Congress on.
Crocker: Yeah, and Dave Petraeus and I used to talk about the different clocks — trying to slow down the Washington clock and speed up the Iraq clock. Among our many, many attributes as Americans, long-term patience isn’t one of them, as you note now in the debate on Afghanistan.
WW: You were considering retirement from the service before you received the Iraq posting.
Crocker: Yes, our intention was to retire after Pakistan. But again, the Foreign Service is a service like the military, and when the commander in chief asks you to go do something hard for the country, you really have to think long and hard about saying no. The discipline of the service is that when the commander asks, you stand up and salute.
WW: Prior to 2003, you delivered a memo stating that sectarian violence was a real possibility if Saddam Hussein was removed from power. The 2003 invasion goes forth anyway, Saddam is uprooted, and then we have the situation that you came into as ambassador. I assume you could have gone ahead with your retirement plans, yet you decided to try to help sort it out.
Crocker: Yeah, again, it’s all part of being a member of a disciplined service. Our job is to give advice, to make recommendations, but when policy is set, we salute and we implement. It was not the case that I was asked for my views. I wasn’t — I offered them anyway. The process went forward, and then it becomes irrelevant. Once the die is cast, in the service, whether you’re military or civilian, your only mission is to make the policy work.
WW: So the philosophy of professional diplomats is to deal with the situation as it is now, not as it might have been.
Crocker: Yeah, and recognizing that situations always evolve, so there is always the opportunity for good recommendations on how courses might be adjusted, dangers averted, opportunities exploited. We don’t make policy — nobody elected us. We advise on it, and then we implement it. We should always be ready with recommendations on how it might shift, but what we learn in high school and college about our own government and our own society is something you never forget in my line of work. Policy is made at one end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House; it’s resourced at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, in Congress. These are all elected officials. Those of us who are appointed, whether civilian or military, need to be sure we stay in our lanes. They have the mandate to set and resource policy; we don’t.
WW: In spring of 2008, there were quotes circulating from you and others that attributed Iraq violence to influence from Iran. What kind of evidence did you have or see or hear of that implicated Iran?
Crocker: There was no shortage of evidence. Some of it was quite concrete. The weapons that we or the Iraqis would confiscate that came from Iran, some sophisticated explosives, the EFPs — explosively formed projectiles — a pretty high tech weapon with a technology that just didn’t exist in Iraq, but certainly did in Iran. Then we had the anecdotal or the testimonial, if you will — captured militia members who acknowledged they were trained in Iran. There were lots and lots of those. It was very similar to what I saw in Lebanon with Hezbollah a quarter-century ago. The links were very clear, in both training and arms supply. It worked for the Iranians in Lebanon, and they were pursuing a similar strategy in Iraq, where it didn’t work so well for them.
WW: If you go back to your analogy of the early United States, it happened here too. Other nations would try to exploit divisions that already existed.
Crocker: Yeah, again, I think looking at our own early history is instructive — not for direct parallels, but for just how difficult, messy and complex the birth of nations and societies can be. When a new nation or a reborn nation is struggling, as the Iraqis have been, as we were, the opportunity for others to meddle in it is very much present. You see it in both cases.
WW: Terrorism’s something that’s affected you throughout your career. How can governmental diplomacy be used to counteract terrorism, when terrorism is almost by definition stateless?
“surge”: In Iraq, the 2007 inflation of U.S. troop numbers from 132,000 to 158,000, carried out under Gen. David Petraeus.
British Mandate of Mesopotamia: Great Britain’s governorship of modern-day Iraq, 1920-1932.
Anbar: Westernmost province of Iraq, one of its most strife-torn from 2003 to 2007.
“Anbar Awakening”: A movement among western Sunni tribes beginning in 2005 to battle al-Qaida intervention.
Kirkuk: Northern Iraq city with a mixed ethnic population (including Kurds and Turkmen); major center of oil production.
Baath Party: Ruling party of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, 1968-2003.
de-Baathification: The purging of former Baath loyalists from Iraqi government, reversed by act of parliament in 2008.
Hezbollah: Shi’a political party and militia based in Lebanon.
Hamas: Palestinian political party and militia, now governing the Gaza region.
Jaish al Mahdi/Mahdi Army: Baghdad paramilitary force controlled by religious leader Muqtada al-Sadr.
Sunni: Islamic sect comprising most Muslims worldwide.
Shi’a: The largest non-Sunni branch of Islam.
Kurds: Formerly nomadic ethnic group spread throughout Central Asia and the Middle East, including northern Iraq.
Turkmen: Turkic tribe found in Central Asia and Iraq.
dinar: The Iraqi unit of currency.
Crocker: Well, it starts with just defining your terms. In the case of terrorism, it’s not a policy, it’s not an ideology, it’s a tactic. So sometimes governments employ it, sometimes non-governmental groups employ it, and we have to deal with both. Al-Qaida, of course, is what’s called a non-state actor. But again, countries like Iran ... for three decades now since the fall of the Shah, the Islamic Republic has used terror as a tactic, whether it’s support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, for Hamas in the Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories, for Jaish al Mahdi (the Mahdi Army) and other Shi’a groups in Iraq, or even support for the Taliban now in Afghanistan. It is the policy of that regime to use terror in its arsenal of tactics, and there you see the fusion of state and non-state actors. You’ve gotta look at who your adversaries are, what motivates them, who their allies are, what their resources are, and then work from that to figure out how you’re going to confront and counter them.
WW: It seems like with the American distaste for patience, people looking for diplomatic solutions aren’t going to get the same level of acclaim as people looking for military solutions to terrorism.
Crocker: I think in the post- Cold War world, certainly in the post-9/11 world, there aren’t clear distinctions between the various instruments of power, particularly the diplomatic and the military. They need to be fused together, and that’s certainly what Dave Petraeus and I tried to do in Iraq, as our successors are doing, and as we’re going to need to do in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and now of course in Yemen. Americans shouldn’t see diplomacy and military force as somehow incompatible or contradictory. They’re not at all. One of the points on the surge, the Awakening and related movements, is sometimes you’ve gotta hit a rock with a hammer to open up cracks and fissures that can then be exploited diplomatically. But unless you have the military hammer, you’re not gonna get diplomatic traction. It’s combining the two instruments of power, and doing so in an intelligent and sustained fashion, that I think is one of America’s challenges in this century.
WW: The last part of 2009 was a pretty bad period for terrorism in Iraq — at least three major attacks that have killed at least 250 people, by and large in strikes against government facilities. It’s an action against governance in Iraq, so what does that portend to you for the future of Iraqi self-government?
Crocker: Again, it’s worth taking a long, studied look at what’s going on. Al-Qaida has shown that it’s an absolutely determined enemy, whether it’s operating in Yemen, in Iraq, Pakistan or Afghanistan. The adage is “Never underestimate your enemy,” and certainly, we’ve got to respect al-Qaida’s commitment and its tenacity. They’re not gonna quit. Now, we’ve seen them shift tactics in Iraq. They went through phases when they were aiming at us, they went through a long phase in which they were aiming at Iraqi civilians, trying to reignite sectarian and ethnic conflict — a series of horrific car bombs, ’07, ’08, some this past year, just going at markets, at civilian populations. And they were equal-opportunity killers — Sunni, Shi’a, Kurds, Turkmen, Christians, whatever they could do to try and reignite sectarian strife. It didn’t work. So now they’re targeting the government itself, going after ministries, trying to demonstrate that the government is weak, ineffective, incapable. I don’t think that’s going to work either. The Iraqis are tough and resilient, and that’s as true for the government as it is for the people. The Ministry of Finance has been hit twice; it has had no effect on the financial management of the country, nor has it had an effect on the value of the dinar, which continues to do rather better than the dollar. Not that that’s saying a lot. So again, a resourceful, flexible and committed enemy, but up against a resourceful, committed and very tough Iraqi government and people. So what we’ve got to do is sustain the patience to continue to support Iraq and Iraqis, and to work with them on what I think will increasingly be a non-military effort against al-Qaida, that’s gonna be grounded in good intelligence and effective police work. But we and they have to stay at it, because al-Qaida will exploit any weakness, any lack of attention, any opportunity to control space that they can find, as we’ve seen them find it now in Yemen.
WW: Are you thinking about or working on a memoir?
Crocker: I have had an approach from editors, but writing a serious book ... that is a lot of real hard work, and again, I’m about to have a new day job, and I’m just not sure I’m ready to undertake something as big as a book right now. There are a lot of bad diplomatic memoirs out there. I’m not sure the world needs another one.
WW: You make writing a book sound harder than nation-building.
Crocker: I’ve done the nation-building thing. The book stuff is new, so it’s a little more intimidating.
Jefferson Robbins: 664-7123
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