Ryan Crocker, one of the pre-eminent U.S. diplomats of the past 40 years, cannot help keeping his mind on the crisis spots that have defined his career — in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Iran and Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.
KABUL, Afghanistan — The U.S. diplomat most associated with the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan says that U.S. policymakers need to learn the lessons of the recent past as they weigh military options for the future, including for Syria and Iran:
• Remember the law of unintended consequences.
• Recognize the limits of the United States’ actual capabilities.
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• Understand that getting out of a conflict once you are in can often be dangerous and as destructive for the country as the original conflict.
“You better do some cold calculating, you know, about how do you really think you are going to influence things for the better,” said Ryan Crocker, 63, the departing ambassador to Afghanistan and one of the pre-eminent U.S. diplomats of the past 40 years.
Even as he retires fighting an exhausting illness, Crocker cannot help keeping his mind at work on the crisis spots that have defined his career — in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Iran and Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.
Crocker, a wiry, intense man who for years was a dedicated distance runner, is retiring at the end of this month after a career that began as the last U.S. troops were leaving Vietnam and is ending as the curtain closes on an era of American state-building that has mostly fallen short of the results policymakers had hoped for.
In Iraq, the dream of a peaceful and democratic ally in the Arab world is giving way to a renewal of violence and an authoritarian government that lists toward Iran. In Afghanistan, the future is uncertain and hangs on dozens of “ifs” — if the elections are fair enough, if the Afghan security forces can fight off insurgents, if the government can become self-sufficient.
Looking ahead, Crocker sees, if anything, an increasingly fraught foreign landscape in a world set afire by war and revolution, a chapter bound to frustrate the best intentions and most sophisticated strategies of the U.S. Although he speaks Arabic and has spent a lifetime immersed in the Arab world and Afghanistan, Crocker is deeply skeptical that Americans on foreign soil can be anything other than strangers in a strange land.
“We’re a superpower, we don’t fight on our territory, but that means you are in somebody else’s stadium, playing by somebody else’s ground rules, and you have to understand the environment, the history, the politics of the country you wish to intervene in,” he said.
Although publicly Crocker has sometimes presented the glass as half-full when assessing the situation in foreign countries, fellow diplomats say that his private analyses tend to be stark and unromantic — a vision shaped by his 38 years of experience in which he confronted over and over the limits of U.S. power and the hostility of many in the world to what the United States stands for.
On scene in Lebanon
In 1983, while a political attaché in Lebanon, he was in his office when a delivery truck loaded with explosives slammed into the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people, including 17 Americans. He was one of the first on the scene, walking through the smoldering wreckage looking for his colleagues.
A year earlier, in Lebanon, he was the U.S. diplomat who walked through the Sabra and Shatila camps after 800 mostly Muslim refugees were slaughtered there by Christian militias. He used a transmitter to tell his colleagues in Washington, D.C., about the carnage around him.
In 1998, his residence was attacked while he was ambassador to Syria. Although he was away, his wife, Christine, was inside the house.
She has almost always traveled with him, even to war zones, and accompanied him to Baghdad despite the dangers. But she has not been with him in Afghanistan.
Most recently in Kabul, Crocker was in the embassy when it came under siege by suicide bombers armed with rockets who positioned themselves in an unfinished apartment building and shot at the embassy in an attack that lasted 19 hours.
With all that in mind, Crocker, who has a wry sense of humor, is generally leery of predictions in chaotic situations.
“You know my hackneyed line — that an extreme-long-range prediction is a week from Thursday,” he said.
Crocker, the child of an Air Force family, was born in Spokane but spent time growing up in Morocco and Turkey as well as Canada. After obtaining a degree in English literature from Whitman College in Walla Walla, he joined the State Department, and the next decade set the pattern of the rest of his life, toggling between service in the Arab world and work in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
He started with Persian language training and was sent to Iran, and he then pursued Arabic training, joining the elite ranks of the State Department’s Arabists.
Crocker was one of the Arab world specialists in the State Department who expressed deep worry at the Bush administration’s march into Iraq. He and William J. Burns, then special assistant to the secretary of state, prepared a secret memorandum in 2002 examining the risks associated with a U.S. invasion.
Titled “The Perfect Storm,” it reportedly outlined a possible situation in which ousting Saddam Hussein would unleash long-suppressed sectarian and ethnic anger and draw the regional players — Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran — into the violent brew. The analysis described with striking accuracy the disintegration of Iraqi society that came to pass.
In 2007, Crocker was nominated as ambassador to Iraq to fix the deadly and chaotic situation. He worked hand in hand with the new U.S. military commander, Gen. David Petraeus, in what became a remarkable partnership. They were both sold on the need for a surge of U.S. troops there and convinced that the United States had a responsibility after entering Iraq not to abandon it to a worsening whirlwind of sectarian violence.
Beneath Crocker’s analysis is a feeling for those who are vulnerable, including ordinary people who in fiery parts of the world and are too often collateral damage. As he contemplated the widening violence in Syria he sounded sober, even bleak.
“I worry greatly that the minorities, the Alawis and the Christians, are going to be in for a very awful time,” he said, adding that he fears as well that if Muslim hard-liners take over, “the repercussions for Syria, for Lebanon and Iraq, I think, can be pretty serious.”
As for the United States’ ability to sway the situation, he was again reflective.
“We’ve been writing memos to policymakers with the subject line ‘Levers on Syria’ for decades,” he said. “Well, you know, the reality was those levers didn’t exist.”
Now, he added: “I’m not sure we can do much to influence it.”