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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Ryan Crocker: United States Ambassador to Iraq

Ryan Clark Crocker, the current United States Ambassador to Iraq, is somewhat of an enigma: a US Ambassador who has been working the Middle East for decades but about whom we don't know that much, especially regarding key issues that relate directly to his current service in Baghdad.

This profile will discuss what is known of Crocker's co-authorship of the "Perfect Storm Memo" which warned of the danger of the current quagmire in Iraq before the US invasion (and may have supplied some of the source material for Colin Powell's famous line about the "Pottery Barn Rule"). It will also examine Crocker's current participation in the Joint Campaign Plan Redesign Team and survey the public record of Crocker's career, thinking and experience leading up to his confirmation as Ambassador to Iraq.

According to the NYT, Ambassador Crocker is:

One of the State Department’s most experienced Middle East hands, Mr. Crocker, 57, has already served as ambassador to Kuwait, Syria, Lebanon and Pakistan, with postings as well to Iran, Qatar, Egypt and Afghanistan.

Ambassador Crocker has recently been assigned by the Bush Administration to partner with General David H. Petraeus in crafting the strategy of the "second surge" in Iraq, in Bush-speak the "Joint Campaign Plan Redesign Team."

What is the Joint Campaign Plan Redesign Team? Very little information is available publicly about this awkwardly-titled program. According to CNN:

A "joint campaign plan redesign team" is preparing the diplomatic and military strategy for Iraq, which is expected to be approved by the end of the month. One element of the plan is to try to identify groups of people -- possibly including Sunni extremists and militia groups -- with whom U.S. officials feel they can do business, such as negotiating power-sharing and cease-fire agreements and granting economic aid [...]

The officials cited an inability to maintain current troop levels into the summer as a reason for the changed course. "We have been focused too long on defeating the enemy," one official said. "We need to bring them to the negotiating table." Little else is known about the new plan and it has drawn little reaction.

But the announcement apparently is an acknowledgment that the traditional war-fighting stance of trying to capture or kill all insurgents is failing, that the country may have devolved into a civil war, and that the only way to proceed is to use military force sparingly and attempt to bring many insurgents into the fold.

This is an interesting assignment for Ambassador Crocker since, as the Los Angeles Times noted, Crocker is "a career diplomat who once warned that the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein could set off spiraling strife between the nation's Sunni Arabs and majority Shiites."

At his swearing-in, Crocker told an audience, mainly workers at the U.S. Embassy where the ceremony was held, that security was "without question" the central issue in Iraq. "Terrorists, insurgents and militias continue to threaten security in Baghdad and around the country," said the 57-year-old diplomat. Fulfilling U.S. goals in Iraq would be hard, he said, but added, "If I thought it was impossible, I would not be standing here today."

What can we learn about Ambassador Crocker from the public record? The rest of this article will survey the available information with an emphasis on highlighting relevant information relating to how Ambassador Corker may discharge his duties in Iraq.

This Thom Shanker New York Times profile written at the time of his confirmation as Ambassador to Iraq by the US Senate contained this information regarding Ambassador Crocker and human rights:

He does have detractors among human rights advocates, who recently criticized his public support for Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, as the final days of Mr. Crocker’s tour as ambassador in Pakistan were marked by protests denouncing General Musharraf’s suspension of the country’s chief justice. The human rights advocates do acknowledge that Mr. Crocker was carrying out a policy directed from Washington.

And this New York Times biography written by Scott Shane at the time of Ambassador Crocker's reassignment from Pakistan to Iraq noted how he is viewed within the diplomatic community:

Former colleagues say Mr. Crocker is likely to be a less public presence in the Iraqi capital than Mr. Khalilzad, though they say he will work assiduously behind the scenes for the political accommodation necessary to reverse the slide to civil war.

“He has the background on a lot of the important figures in Iraq, and he’s very good at sussing out who’s who.” A former colleague who agreed to speak of Mr. Crocker candidly on condition of anonymity called him “incredibly hard-working, very serious, a little introverted. I’d say he’s more respected than loved in the State Department,” the colleague said, “but he certainly is respected. He’s done the dirtiest, hardest assignments you can imagine.”

Ambassador Crocker's wiki page notes that he has training in both Persian and Arabic, and speaks both languages. That is significant given some of his predecessors in Baghdad. And this must-read Robin Wright Washington Post profile notes Crocker's long and direct experience in the Middle East, including this description of his experience with a truck-bombing at the American Embassy in Beirut in 1983, including an observation from Thomas Friedman who was stationed in Beirut at the time as well:

On April 18, 1983, Ryan Crocker was in his office at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, with its spectacular view overlooking the Mediterranean. His wife, Christine, was working next door. At 1:05 p.m. a dark delivery van made a sharp left onto the guarded cobblestone lane and rammed into the front wall, detonating an explosive that ripped apart the seven-story high-rise. A huge brown cloud of smoke could be seen for miles. It was the first suicide bombing by Islamic extremists against a U.S. target.

Crocker -- the career diplomat the Bush administration has nominated to serve as U.S. ambassador in Baghdad -- was blown against the wall. Bloodied but not seriously injured, he and his wife fled the building. He then began to search through the twisted steel and concrete for colleagues.

New York Times correspondent Thomas Friedman lived nearby and raced to the site. "I came around the corner and there was the American Embassy cut in half like a doll's house, bodies hanging out of it, smoke belching, and the first person I saw staggering around in the ruins was Ryan, his sleeves rolled up, looking in the rubble," Friedman recalls. The bomb, which killed 64 and wiped out the CIA station, marked the start of a trend that now defines U.S. foreign policy.

More to the point, however, Wright, writing for the Washington Post, noted that Crocker was perhaps an Iraq war critic before the invasion. Ambassador Crocker was co-author of the Perfect Storm Memo:

Crocker was one of the most significant voices inside the administration about the dangers of invading Iraq.

In late 2002, as the Bush administration prepared for war, then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell tasked Crocker and Assistant Secretary of State William Burns with exploring the risks of military intervention. The result was a six-page memo they entitled "The Perfect Storm,"[...]

The memo bluntly predicted that toppling Hussein could unleash long-repressed sectarian and ethnic tensions, that the Sunni minority would not easily relinquish power, and that powerful neighbors such as Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia would try to move in to influence events. It also cautioned that the United States would have to start from scratch building a political and economic system because Iraq's infrastructure was in tatters.

This profile of Crocker from TIME correspondent and blogger, Scott MacCleod, picks up and amplifies the significance of "the Perfect Storm Memo," a document which is not yet a matter of public record:

As we watch history straining to repeat itself in Iraq, it is worth exploring why American actions in the Middle East have so often been disastrous when we have so many fine diplomats experienced in the region like Ryan Crocker. I never asked him, but if I had to bet, I'd say that he advised against Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. We know from Soldier, Karen DeYoung's recent biography of former Secretary of State Colin Powell (excerpt), that he opposed the Bush administration's war in Iraq. In a leaked recommendation known as the "Perfect Storm Memo," he foresaw the sectarian conflict and American quagmire that resulted.

Was Ambassador Crocker's Perfect Storm memo the source of Colin Powell's famous admonition to President Bush about the Pottery Barn Rule? As possible as that inference may seem, we simply don't know. Regardless, the irony of Crocker's current position given his co-authorship of the Perfect Storm Memo, and the significance and complexity of his current situation have been underreported.

A tour of articles on Ambassador Crocker during his tenure in Pakistan is also revealing. This PBS Frontline interview with Crocker when he was Ambassador to Pakistan demonstrates his thought process working style and included this significant exchage telegraphing how Crocker views insurgent movements, a point of view which may well apply to how he conducts himself in Iraq:

Frontline: Gov. [Ali Muhammad Jan] Orakzai told me that the finger-pointing is a consequence of the fact that we're five years out from 9/11, and we haven't really put a dent in the Taliban. They're coming back, they're resurgent, and there's a lot of frustration. Could you agree with that?

Ambassador Crocker: Well, there has been a Taliban resurgence, no question about it. … I think what this reflects is we've got a patient and determined enemy. We therefore have to show greater patience and greater determination.

A fight isn't over until an enemy concludes he's defeated. It's what the enemy thinks; it's not necessarily what we think. We've got the three of us [Presidents Karzai of Afghanistan and Musharref of Pakistan and the United States] to persuade him that this is a campaign he's not going to win, which means we can't let frustration take us over on this.

Yes, it's been almost five years since 9/11, but when you look at the challenges, when you look at what President Karzai has to deal with in rebuilding a state and a society in Afghanistan, it doesn't come as a huge shock and surprise to me that the Taliban's found some running room before he gets all this built.

Similarly, on the Pakistan side of the border, the tribal areas have never been an integrated part of the state. As you know, regular army forces had never been stationed there on any kind of long-term basis, ever. The British never did it, and the Pakistani government didn't do it until 2003, 2004. So there are a lot of crevices and vacuums, space where the Taliban can kind of get another little bit of a toehold. We -- and by that I mean the three of us -- have just got to go about this in a coordinated, systematic way, and we will prevail. Sure, I think everybody feels frustration, but in terms of who's doing what, the notion that Pakistan is somehow playing a double game I find just frankly preposterous. President Musharraf is a career military officer. He's putting his troops in harm's way, and they're paying for their mission with their lives. I just find it absolutely impossible to think that any commander would do that with deliberate, two-faced cynicism; equally impossible that officers, commanders and common soldiers wouldn't be aware of it. So I just do not think that's happening.

Finally, this speech given at a school in Pakistan after the massive earthquake that shook that nation is revelatory about Crocker's views of the region as well:

Through USAID, the United States government put $100 million dollars into the relief effort, along with well over $110 million through the U.S. military. Those Chinooks flew thousands of missions; they evacuated thousands of casualties and they helped uncountable people make it through the winter. I am very pleased, those Chinooks are back here today, again coming from Afghanistan, and bringing with them the same crews that helped in the earthquake efforts. Col. Bradley and his pilots, and one of those pilots is here with us today, Betty Piña.

Lt. Piña flew -- I am not sure either of us can count how many -- missions during the disaster relief, but we are delighted that she could come back because she personifies what nations can do when they give full opportunity to both halves of their populations. And I am very pleased therefore to see, the girls of Dadar here too, and their headmistress, Shabana Kasur, a women of extraordinary will, energy and drive.

Ambassador Ryan Crocker is now two months into his assignment as US Ambassador to Iraq. A perusal of the public record reveals that interesting and unanswered questions abound:

What was the content of "the Perfect Storm Memo?" and was it the source material for Colin Powell's admonition about the Pottery Barn Rule? Why and how is a critic who warned of the perils of the invasion now serving as US Ambassador to Iraq? What exactly is the Joint Campaign Plan Redesign Team, who is on it, and how does their assignment relate to a "second surge" in Iraq? Given Ambassador Crocker's track record in Pakistan, what will be the likely human rights outcomes in his stewardship of Iraq? In what ways does the now assembled team of Defense Secretary Gates, General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker represent a change in Bush Administration policy in Iraq?

And, finally, five years after he authored the "Perfect Storm Memo" how do Ambassador Crocker's views on Iraq and the Middle East differ from those of the Bush Administration? Will those views make any difference in the ongoing US occupation or will Ambassador Crocker merely, once again, simply "carry out policy as directed by Washington? Significantly, Ambassador Crocker had this to say on that very subject in an interview conducted for the Whitman college magazine (pdf):

Q: Have changing administrations, and changes within administrations, impacted your work?

Ambassador Crocker: Each administration has its own priorities and style. The job of the career Foreign Service Officer is to offer his best advice as policy is formulated and then to implement that policy. Our elected leaders need to have the confidence that we will carry our policies to the best of our ability.

In closing, one can note this somewhat novelistic...if not apropos given the circumstances...passage about Crocker from the Thom Shanker New York Times profile quoted above:

[James F. Jeffrey], now principal deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, recalled how his former boss took a vacation trek through Yemen, riding deep into the rocky canyon lands between remote villages on a commuter minibus.

Suddenly, inexplicably, the driver lost control. Mr. Crocker leapt to the front of the bus, grabbed the wheel and guided the bus and its frightened passengers safely down the mountain pass.

Whether this vignette proves prophetic or merely wishful thinking, one thing is sure, every student of US policy in Iraq is familiar with that bus, and its 'inexplicable' driver.



  • This February 2007 op/ed by a personal friend of Crocker's from the Philadelphia Inquirer adds to the portrait of Ryan Crocker above.

    In particular, this paragraph stands out:

    In the run-up to the war, Crocker spent sleepless nights worrying about the U.S. decision to invade Baghdad. Washington Post reporter Karen De Young has written of the memo Crocker sent in 2002 to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, titled "The Perfect Storm": He predicted that toppling Saddam Hussein would unleash violent sectarian and ethnic tensions. Top Bush administration officials and advisers believed Iraq would be stable after an invasion.

    By Blogger kid oakland, at 2:14 PM  

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