On the Frontlines: An American Diplomat's Reflections on a Transforming Middle East

Ryan Crocker
Title
  • Beginnings
  • 0:00:01

  • 0:00:01
  • Interviewer
  • These are really oral histories.  I’d like to hear just a little bit of your private history in this as well.  Where did you grow up and what got you interested in going into the Foreign Service?

  • 0:00:12
  • Ryan Crocker
  • I grew up in the Air Force.  My father was a career Air Force officer and I moved around with him both in the U.S. and overseas, Morocco, Canada, Turkey—

  • 0:00:25
  • Interviewer
  • Hold for one second.  I’m just going to turn off that air conditioner.    

  • 0:00:28
  • Interviewer
  • Okay go ahead.

  • 0:00:30
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Alright, I grew up in the Air Force.  My father was assigned at Fairchild Air Base near Spokane when I was born.  For the first 18 years of my life, through primary and secondary school, I was an Air Force brat.  I graduated from high school in Turkey on his last assignment, and I knew going through college that I wanted to be involved in service and it was tradition kicked up with him but like a lot of sons, I did not want to follow my father’s footsteps exactly.

  • 0:01:02
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Having lived overseas, having spent a year abroad in a university in Ireland, my junior year—we traveled through Asia during that time.  I was interested in the Foreign Service, took the exam my senior year and came into the Foreign Service, directly out of college.

  • 0:01:23
  • Interviewer
  • So you must’ve by growing up as an Air Force brat you must’ve developed an interested in other cultures I’d imagine by virtue of that.  Is that right?

  • 0:01:31
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Well that’s exactly it.  I had my preschool years in Morocco.  I had part of my elementary education in Canada and then of course my high school in Turkey.  And my parents believed in taking advantage of their overseas tours.  So we traveled extensively as a family whenever my dad could get away, and then on my own during my junior year of college and the summer thereafter.

  • 0:02:03
  • Interviewer
  • Which college did you go to, then?

  • 0:02:05
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Whitman College in Washington State.

  • 0:02:07
  • Interviewer
  • And what was your major there?

  • 0:02:09
  • Ryan Crocker
  • English Literature.

  • 0:02:10
  • Interviewer
  • And languages, you studied languages, I’d imagine.

  • 0:02:16
  • Ryan Crocker
  • I did but like I think many students of my generation, languages were intellectual abstracts.  They were not living means of communication.  I did not do particularly well in languages.  I’d studied Spanish; I’d studied German and really could not communicate in either and thought I was something of a linguistic dunce until I joined the Foreign Service.  The Foreign Service has possibly the best foreign language teaching program in the English speaking world, and I discovered I was actually not too bad at languages.  So when I—the languages I’ve acquired, I acquired in the Foreign Service—Farsi, French, and mainly Arabic.

  • 0:02:58
  • Interviewer
  • And that sort of lack of interest or capability in foreign languages, that’s sort of an American trait, isn’t it?

  • 0:03:06
  • Interviewer
  • It is.  We’re a great nation and a great people, and I think the greatest on earth, but we do have our drawbacks and weaknesses.  One of them is language because the rest of world, by and large, can speak to us in English and because we are still with all of the globalization that is moving forward, we are still a nation-continent in many respects.  We simply do not devote the resource to language that I believe we should.

  • 0:03:39
  • Interviewer
  • Do you think that’s then driven more by our geography or by our sort of arrogance?

  • 0:03:44
  • Ryan Crocker
  • I wouldn’t call it arrogance.  Again America for all of its global reach is in many respects an inward-looking nation.  The size of our economy and the expanse of our geography, most Americans are occupied with things American, and when we do venture out, of course, it’s into a world where English is—if not the first language it’s pretty much the second language.  So—

  • 0:04:17
  • Interviewer
  • It’s certainly the language of business, obviously.

  • 0:04:19
  • Ryan Crocker
  • It’s the language of business.  It’s the language of government.  It’s even the language of the arts to a marked degree.  So I wouldn’t really call us arrogant in that sense.  It’s just that we don’t see the imperative to learn languages.

  • 0:04:34
  • Interviewer
  • Do you call upon your Arabic training in your diplomatic work or is it more to sort of familiarize yourself with the culture?  Do you actually engage in negotiation and diplomacy through a separate language?

  • 0:04:50
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Well for me Arabic was very much a working language.  There are parts of the Arab world, like the rest of the world, where English is widely spoken, but there are parts where it is not.  And in Iraq, for example, the prime minister does not speak English, and our conversations were conducted in Arabic without interpretation so I could have a direct contact with him, and I think that is invaluable.

  • 0:05:19
  • Ryan Crocker
  • I’ve done negotiation in Arabic for highly complex, highly sensitive issues—I do use a translator.  You simply cannot afford to get a single word wrong and also even if you’re reasonably good in language, if it is a negotiation and the stakes are high, the added time that you have between the utterance and a foreign language and its translation into English can be extremely valuable.

  • 0:05:53
  • Interviewer
  • I can see where it actually could be valuable to have the time, [but] it could also sort of drag the communication though in a way, right?  But if you’re speaking directly to an Arab speaker, you could have much more of an exchange, isn’t that right?

  • 0:06:07
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Absolutely.  Again, I’m talking about negotiations [Crosstalk] in a very technical sense. 

  • 0:06:16
  • Interviewer
  • So you went from college right into the Foreign Service?

  • 0:06:20
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Directly, yes.  Just a few months after I graduated.

  • 0:06:22
  • Interviewer
  • And where were you first posted at?

  • 0:06:25
  • Ryan Crocker
  • It was interesting.  At that time in the Foreign Service entering officers were normally given one of their top five choices, and I was actually the only one in my entering class for whom that did not happen.  I had wanted to go to the Middle East.  I had traveled there—Turkey, borders the Middle East, is a Muslim culture.  I was intrigued by it.

  • 0:06:49
  • Ryan Crocker
  • I wound up being assigned to Guatemala, which was fine.  I was 22 years old—it didn’t matter, it was all an adventure.  I’d actually started Spanish, and two weeks into Spanish training I got a call one night asking if I would like to go to Khorramshahr, and I said, “Sure,” figuring it had to be the Middle East or they wouldn’t be offering it.  And after I said “sure,” I looked up where Khorramshahr was because I didn’t have a clue.  It’s down in southwestern Iran near the Iraqi border.

  • 0:07:27
  • Interviewer
  • Hold on just for a sec.      

  • 0:07:29
  • Interviewer
  • So what year first of all was that for Guatemala?  That would’ve been in the ’60s, is that right?

  • 0:07:34
  • Ryan Crocker
  • No I graduated in ’71.

  • 0:07:36
  • Interviewer
  • ’71.

  • 0:07:37
  • Ryan Crocker
  • So this was ’72.

  • An American in the Shah’s Iran
  • 0:07:39

  • 0:07:39
  • Interviewer
  • ’72. And then you…went to Iran then the next year, is that what you said?

  • 0:07:44
  • Ryan Crocker
  • I went to Iran in ’72, yes.

  • 0:07:47
  • Interviewer
  • So tell me what Iran was like in 1972?

  • 0:07:50
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Well I learned a very valuable lesson during that first tour in Iran. This was the time of course of global revolution on campuses.  I had been affected by that as I think my entire generation was. So I arrived—

  • 0:08:08
  • Interviewer
  • You mean with the youth revolution of the ’60s? 

  • 0:08:10
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Yes, yes, exactly. So I arrived in Iran with this preconception that regimes like that of the Shah were heading for the dustbin of history, that the authoritarian monarchies simply could not withstand the new forces in the world, and I spent my two years there trying to prove that case through discussions with labor union representatives, students at university, and so forth. I didn’t get a lot of resonance from the embassy on that and, of course, as history has shown us I may have been quite right about the survivability of the Shah, but I was 180 degrees wrong about the direction of his downfall. It did not come from the left— 

  • 0:09:00
  • Interviewer
  • You anticipated— 

  • 0:09:01
  • Ryan Crocker
  • It came from the right. 

  • 0:09:02
  • Interviewer
  • You anticipated a liberal democratic regime to replace—

  • 0:09:05
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Right.

  • 0:09:06
  • Interviewer
  • Or that’s what you wished for.

  • 0:09:07
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Well not “wished for”—that’s what I believed was going to happen, and the lesson I derived from that is do not carry your own intellectual baggage and preconceptions into someone else’s very complex political culture. You’ve got to be on-receive particularly in your initial months. You’ve got to see reality in its own terms. That’s something I’ve always tried to follow.

  • 0:09:32
  • Interviewer
  • So it’s to observe rather than to affect.

  • 0:09:38
  • Ryan Crocker
  • That’s a different thing. It’s to observe and to interpret a culture, a political society as objectively as you can in its own terms, so that you can then affect it in a way that makes sense.

  • 0:09:57
  • Interviewer
  • So as a diplomat one of your primary missions, then, is to understand the political, cultural, economic environment in which you’re working so that you can have a greater effect when you do institute policy, is that right?

  • 0:10:15
  • Ryan Crocker
  • That’s exactly it. If you’re simply observing and analyzing then you’re a graduate student. You’re not a diplomat. Diplomats are there for a purpose and that is to further the interests of their nation. So it’s very much about affecting, but you’ve got to understand where you and how it works before you can really have a constructive effect.

  • 0:10:41
  • Interviewer
  • So again describe Iran in 1972 and describe—I guess that would be the Nixon administration’s policy toward Iran in 1972.

  • 0:10:52
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Well here is why, in addition to language, I think an understanding of history is extremely important in diplomacy.  I consider it the most important of academic pursuits to inform a serving diplomat, more so than political science, because you need to understand Iran at that time by looking back to World War II and its aftermath. It was World War II, of course, that launched us as a major player on the world stage. Churchill made clear in 1946 that Britain could no longer carry its traditional role vis-à-vis the Soviets. We sought to do that directly. That is I think an important interpretation of our intervention in Vietnam.

  • 0:11:47
  • Ryan Crocker
  • That clearly was not going well for us by the time I arrived in Iran, and a new policy, the Nixon Doctrine, was already taking shape that we would try not to have to do these things by ourselves, secure the world.  It would be far better if we could find powerful, yet reliable allies, to do this in our stead. Iran was such a country. We saw Iran as a means of ensuring stability and an anti-Communist, anti-Soviet, pro-Western influence in the Middle East, and it was the policy of the Nixon administration to fully support the Shah.

  • 0:12:34
  • Interviewer
  • What was the Shah like? You must’ve met with him— 

  • 0:12:36
  • Ryan Crocker
  • I didn’t. Again, I was not in Tehran. I was way down the road in a three-person consulate, which for a brand-new Foreign Service officer couldn’t have been better, because it meant I had a lot of responsibility. We covered the whole southern swath of Iran from the Iraqi border to the Pakistani border, but it meant that I was in the provinces. I was not in the capital, not engaging with the central government. 

  • 0:13:07
  • Interviewer
  • What did an authoritarian, modernizing regime with support of the American foreign policy [establishment] look like in the provinces? What did you see as the life of the typical provincial Iranian? 

  • 0:13:28
  • Ryan Crocker
  • One—even as a junior officer—one saw the gulf between the establishment, the ruling elite and their allies and much of the population at large. The secret police, SAVAK, was widely feared. You could feel it talking to Iranians. They were often quite ready to be frank if they were alone with me or with other Americans.  If there were other Iranians present, particularly those they did not know well or fully trust, you could see the circumspection set in.

  • 0:14:16
  • Ryan Crocker
  • That was my first real exposure what I would term a police state, and it had its impact. Again, provincial government officials, the provincial economic and business elite were in one place, much of the rest of the population was in a different place—not in open opposition by any means. That wasn’t there. They did not dare to have it there, but a distance, dissociation, and I think fear. 

  • 0:14:56
  • Interviewer
  • Did you sense resentment toward America even then for its alliance with the Shah? 

  • 0:15:04
  • Ryan Crocker
  • It was there but—again it was understated or not stated. Fear, I think, once again of what the consequences could be of speaking openly and on that even speaking openly to an American, because it was about America. So one didn’t hear it, one could feel it. 

  • 0:15:28
  • Interviewer
  • What about the fundamentalists, the germ, or the root of the fundamentalist movement that would emerge later in the ’70s? Did you see any elements of that? 

  • 0:15:41
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Absolutely invisible to me but again, I was looking everywhere but there. I wouldn’t have recognized a politicized mullah if I tripped over one.  Again that’s the—it wasn’t there to be seen if I really, really looked, ’72?’74 I’m not sure, but given my outlook, I wasn’t going to find it.

  • 0:16:06
  • Interviewer
  • So how long were you there, in Iran? 

  • 0:16:08
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Two years.

  • A “Bedouin Shepherd” in the Desert
  • 0:16:09

  • 0:16:09
  • Interviewer
  • And then where did you go from there?

  • 0:16:11
  • Ryan Crocker
  • To our newly-opened embassy in Doha, Qatar.

  • 0:16:16
  • Interviewer
  • And from—well how long were you in Qatar?

  • 0:16:18
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Two years.

  • 0:16:19
  • Interviewer
  • Two years. And what was your work there?

  • 0:16:22
  • Ryan Crocker
  • A little of everything, and we had just really opened our embassies down in the Gulf, the Gulf States—with the exception of Kuwait, and, of course, Saudi Arabia—had only acquired their independence from Britain in 1970. We didn’t move in right away, so it was just in 1974 as I left Iran that we really began to establish full-fledged embassies—which were very small. I think there were seven or eight of us in Qatar, altogether. So I was nominally the economic and commercial officer, but I did everything—administration, political reporting, back up consular work.  And again, it was a tremendous opportunity for still a junior officer to get full exposure to what a diplomat does.

  • 0:17:19
  • Interviewer
  • Now at this point you had been in—this is your third Muslim country really, right? Because you’d been in Turkey growing up, which was a Western European-style of state. You had your experience in Iran and then Qatar. People sometimes think of the Muslim world as one big, single monolithic thing—Americans sometimes do, I should say, but it’s a very varied and nuanced world, isn’t it? What did you discover therefore comparing your experiences across national borders?

  • 0:17:54
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Again I was fortunate that by the time I was 25, I had spent—what would it have been?  Six and a half, almost seven years, in three enormously different Muslim countries—different culturally, different ethnically, historically, and linguistically. So by the time I had completed my first tour in the Arab world in Qatar, I had internalized [that] the Muslim world, so-called, was as varied, different, and divergent as the so-called Western world.

  • 0:18:37
  • Interviewer
  • What was Qatar like then by comparison to Iran?

  • 0:18:43
  • Ryan Crocker
  • The full impact of oil wealth was just emerging, just starting to transform the country, both physically as well as I think culturally. Hadn’t quite taken hold yet, so I‘d had the opportunity to see a society in transition from the traditional means of livelihood—trading, fishing, pearling—into an almost exclusively petroleum economy. I also had a chance to see, again, because it was still very present—Bedouin culture, the Arab culture of the desert and how profoundly that differed from Iran’s highly sophisticated urbanized culture.

  • 0:19:37
  • Interviewer
  • I read that you spent some time just out as a shepherd for a while to understand that, is that right?

  • 0:19:42
  • Ryan Crocker
  • That was later. 

  • 0:19:43
  • Interviewer
  • That was later.

  • 0:19:44
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Again it was the practice, if not the policy, of the [U.S. Foreign] Service in those years that before the enormous investment that was made in an officer to teach him or her Arabic—it’s a two-year program and that’s all that one does—that it was important for that officer to have an initial tour in the Arab world to be sure that there was some compatibility there.  The last thing the Service wants to do is invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in someone who then decides he doesn’t really like Arab culture. So it was after Qatar that I spent two years studying Arabic, and it was during the second year of my Arabic studies that I spent time kind of herding sheep in southern Jordan. 

  • 0:20:38
  • Interviewer
  • So where was your Arabic study done then? 

  • 0:20:42
  • Ryan Crocker
  • The way it was done is still the way it is done—the first year in Washington at the Foreign Service Institute, the second year in Tunisia.

  • 0:20:53
  • Interviewer
  • And classrooms? Is that right? Is that how you learned or was that—? 

  • 0:20:57
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Certainly the first year. The second year, one was expected to supplement the full classroom experience with experience outside. Tunisia was not the best linguistic environment for that. Many educated Tunisians prefer to speak French. It wasn’t our first choice—that had been Lebanon but the outbreak of the civil war had forced the movement of the [Foreign Service] Institute to Tunisia. 

  • 0:21:31
  • Interviewer
  • Okay, so you went to Jordan as part of this training, too. And how long were you there living as a shepherd? 

  • 0:21:40
  • Ryan Crocker
  • I was there with a Bedouin family for a month, which doesn’t seem like a long time, but if you are living as a Bedouin—it’s a pretty intensive experience.

  • 0:21:52
  • Interviewer
  • So you—no breaks? You did everything with them? You followed their life, you ate their food, you—

  • 0:22:00
  • Ryan Crocker
  • I did, and again all though it was fairly arduous at the time, I definitely profited from the fact that the family I was with—and this was spring, it was sheep shearing season, a very busy time—was extremely short-handed, one son in the army, another son working in the Gulf, so they could use even my hopelessly unskilled help. So I actually had a role to play—herding goats and trying to hold sheep still while more knowledgeable hands sheared them.

  • 0:22:36
  • Interviewer
  • Were they suspicious of you? What did they make of this American coming there to live with them?

  • 0:22:40
  • Interviewer
  • Well again it’s how things are done in this society. One doesn’t simply show up and say, “Can I live with you for a month?” Working through our ambassador in Jordan, Thomas Pickering, I got an introduction to the paramount chief of Al-Howaitat, put this to him, and he said yes he could make it happen. So he then chose the subtribe and the family, and if the paramount sheikh says, “This would be a good thing to do,” the subtribe and family will stand up and salute. 

  • 0:23:20
  • Interviewer
  • So what did you learn in that month? 

  • 0:23:23
  • Ryan Crocker
  • I learned several things. This was a time in which Arabs, and particularly Bedouins, could themselves be extraordinarily insular. I found that the women of the family, for example, found me so amusing as I spoke Arabic, because they could not conceive of people who didn’t speak Arabic as a native language. So as I made mistakes and had this strange accent they thought I was either mentally deficient or just having them on as some kind of elaborate joke. Because, again, their experience did not encompass anyone, they’d never met anyone, who was not a native speaker of Arabic. I learned how important history is and how oral traditions shape a sense of history and of culture.

  • 0:24:27
  • Ryan Crocker
  • At night after dinner, my host would sometimes be visited by other members of the subtribe, and they would talk about what Mohammad bin Yusuf had done, his great adventure in Saudi Arabia. It sounded as though it had been last month, but as they talked further you begin to realize this was generations, even centuries old, part of this elaborate family and tribal historical narrative.

  • 0:25:10
  • Ryan Crocker
  • I also found how important lineage was. Every one of the people I met could recite their ancestry back ten generations. They knew exactly who they were and how important family connections were. 

  • 0:25:28
  • Interviewer
  • What strikes me is a couple of things that comes from that then. Their sense of time is very different than the modern Western sense of time and their sense of family and race is likely to be very different. Did you take that away from it? 

  • 0:25:40
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Well absolutely. I remember one day when a four-wheel drive pickup came through the wadi—this was of real interest to my people, it wasn’t one they recognized—stopped some distance from us.   One of the men went over, came back, and said, “It’s okay, they’re Arabs.” My reaction to that was, “Well, what were they expecting, Puerto Ricans? I mean who else is it going to be?” Arab to them meant people like them.

  • 0:26:27
  • Ryan Crocker
  • They were of the broad tribal confederation. They were also nomadic, they were Bedouin. Arabs for them did not encompass non-Bedouin Arabs. Palestinians were not Arabs. City-dwelling Jordanians were not Arabs. Only they were Arabs. And in terms of time, it was—again, literacy had come to some in this family, not all, but the oral tradition I think affected the way time was perceived and their life itself.

  • 0:27:09
  • Ryan Crocker
  • The time was of seasons. When are the sheep born? When are they sheared? When are they slaughtered? There was some rudimentary agriculture also driven by the seasons. The cycle of the day, these were a diurnal people. They were awake with the sun.

  • 0:27:30
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Unfortunately for me they did not go to bed with the sun, either. That’s when they sat around talked. Anyone who thinks of Arabs as lazy should spend a month doing what I was doing. They got by on—it seemed like five hours of sleep, maybe a nap in the afternoon and an incredibly strenuous existence.

  • 0:27:56
  • Interviewer
  • Sounds like the ways they apprehend life, too, is through stories, is through narrative, is that right?

  • 0:28:02
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Well again—we would call it stories. For them, it is the total body of their knowledge. It’s history, it’s politics, it’s literature. It’s in a world in which television was completely absent—radios, not where we were—there was no reception at the time. Literacy was still very rudimentary. It was all an oral tradition, but story might encompass it but only if we understand “story” in its broadest possible term.

  • From Saddam’s Iraq to an Embattled Lebanon
  • 0:28:45

  • 0:28:45
  • Interviewer
  • So after your experience there, you were posted where then?

  • 0:28:49
  • Ryan Crocker
  • I went from language training to Iraq in 1978.

  • 0:28:54
  • Interviewer
  • And your position then was in Baghdad? It was at the embassy in Baghdad, is that right?

  • 0:29:00
  • Ryan Crocker
  • It was at the embassy in Baghdad but not at the American embassy.  It was at the Belgian Embassy because at that time we did not have formal diplomatic relations with Iraq so we were the U.S. Interests section—

  • 0:29:13
  • Interviewer
  • I see.

  • 0:29:14
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Of the Belgian Embassy.

  • 0:29:15
  • Interviewer
  • And in that circumstance you had contact with Saddam Hussein?

  • 0:29:20
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Again not—we did not. Saddam Hussein was as he was pretty much throughout his history. He was not accessible, not to foreign diplomats and not to his own people. So, no, no contact with Saddam and very little contact with the Iraqi government who viewed us, at that time, with enormous mistrust and suspicion.

  • 0:29:54
  • Interviewer
  • What was Iraq like in 1978?

  • 0:29:58
  • Ryan Crocker
  • It—I had been in Iran under the Shah so I had some familiarity with a police state.  This was a police state raised to the order of 10. The Iranian style of control was far more subtle and, as severe as it could be, far less repressive than Saddam’s regime where our neighbor was afraid to talk to us—absolutely, even to exchange a pleasantry.

  • 0:30:35
  • Interviewer
  • Is that because you were an American or were they—any foreign connection would’ve been forbidden?

  • 0:30:42
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Almost any foreign connection. He as it happened was married to an East German and—although, of course this was still the days of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact with which Iraq was alliwed—that put him under some suspicion that he dared not carry another step of seeming to have any kind of connection with me.

  • 0:31:06
  • Interviewer
  • So what was your work like there?

  • 0:31:09
  • Ryan Crocker
  • My work was primarily again economic and commercial. They may not have liked us, but they were willing to do a certain amount of business with us. So I looked for those opportunities. How could I increase the market for U.S. goods? And we found a number.

  • 0:31:31
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Also, of course, traveling as much as I could because there was a tremendous interest in Washington in knowing as much about this very closed country and society as we could manage. And, of course, I did have Arabic at that point—and I used it at every opportunity I had—I had to at least give an anecdotal sense of what was going on, what life was like, what the editorials were saying. It was a bit of Kremlinology at that time, analyzing even photographs—who stood where like the old photos of the May Day parades [in the Soviet Union]. So it was again—some of my colleagues found it hugely isolated. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the challenge. One could not really enjoy life there, because although we were certainly exempt from the horrors of the state, they were not invisible to us. 

  • 0:32:34
  • Interviewer
  • And were you watched and listened in on and observed in a suspicious way there?

  • 0:32:42
  • Ryan Crocker
  • We assumed that any telephone conversation was monitored. We knew were followed. The Iraqi regime of the day was anything but subtle. They would follow you at a distance of seven feet and didn’t particularly care whether you knew it or not.

  • 0:33:03
  • Interviewer
  • I may have my history wrong here but wasn’t during ’78 that the Israelis bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor? 

  • 0:33:10
  • Ryan Crocker
  • No that was 1981.

  • 0:33:12
  • Interviewer
    1. Were you still there? 
  • 0:33:13
  • Ryan Crocker
  • No, I was in Beirut. 

  • 0:33:15
  • Interviewer
  • In Beirut. So you went from Iraq then to Beirut? And that was a terrible time for Beirut. 

  • 0:33:22
  • Ryan Crocker
  • It was. I had met my wife in Iraq. She was also in the Foreign Service and posted to Baghdad at the same time, and we were married at the end of 1980 and literally had our honeymoon in Beirut where we were both assigned. And Beirut was no longer fashionable as a honeymoon destination by that particular period. 

  • 0:33:42
  • Interviewer
  • It had once been one of the most beautiful spots in the world?

  • 0:33:43
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Yes, “the Switzerland of the Middle East” as it was called.

  • 0:33:50
  • Interviewer
  • So describe the situation in Lebanon in the early 1980s?

  • 0:33:56
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Well it was my first experience in a conflict environment, and a war was on.

  • 0:34:05
  • Interviewer
  • Were you now the U.S. ambassador?

  • 0:34:07
  • Ryan Crocker
  • No, no, no, no. I was the head of the Political Section in ’81 to ’84 and like anyone in the military, you can read about it, you can even train for it, but until you’re in it—you really don’t know what it’s like. The noise, the uncertainty, and the fear and again anyone who is in a combat situation who says they’re not afraid has got to be either dumb or lying, but you learn to—just like soldiers—over time, you learn to adjust to it, to adapt to it.

  • 0:34:50
  • Interviewer
  • That’s an interesting point. You made that point last night about your safety is not the first line of your mission.

  • 0:34:59
  • Ryan Crocker
  • There isn’t—if it’s all about safety there is no mission, and I think we veered, over the years, too far in that direction.  We’re starting, I think, to correct back. Then it was expected that you would live with the danger and carry on with what you’re supposed to.

  • 0:35:21
  • Interviewer
  • You were there during there then during the 1982 barracks bombing?

  • 0:35:26
  • Ryan Crocker
  • 1982 was the Israeli invasion. 1983 was first the embassy bombing in April and then six months later the barracks bombing. Yes, I was there for all of it.

  • 0:35:36
  • Interviewer
  • Describe that situation and your role in responding to it.

  • 0:35:43
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Well I was in the embassy when it was bombed in April and the side of the building that was hit—mercifully for me it was the back not the front, because the whole front of the building was sheared off, that’s where all the people were lost. Again, the initial reaction is you just account for your people, check to see where everybody was.

  • 0:36:12
  • Interviewer
  • So you lost many friends, I assume.

  • 0:36:14
  • Ryan Crocker
  • I did indeed, yes, yes, and I worked to ensure they got out of the building, but in the process of heading them downstairs, I went upstairs to see if my chain of command was still alive, the ambassador and the deputy chief of mission, because if they weren’t then I had this appalling thought that it would be me.

  • 0:36:42
  • Interviewer
  • Who was the ambassador then?

  • 0:36:44
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Robert Dillon.  They were, neither of them were harmed, so I had this incongruous sense of relief that at least in this awful crisis that it did not fall on my shoulders to manage what we did next.

  • 0:37:05
  • Interviewer
  • And what did happen next?

  • 0:37:11
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Well for me it was all about again the recovery.  I sort of set myself up on-site and worked through two full cycles, day-and-night because again we accounted for everyone alive in the first few hours then came the process of digging through the rubble, and since we held out hope that there could be survivors trapped under the rubble it had to be done with huge care, and I again kind of took it on myself to try to be part of that, of being sure that those operating equipment did not operate it anywhere near where someone could be.  It was done painstakingly by hand and then as bodies were recovered to ensuring that identification was made and that they were properly accounted for.

  • 0:38:25
  • Interviewer
  • Tell me, what goes through a diplomat’s mind in that situation?  You know when this question comes up for soldiers, of course all the time, you’ve lost your buddy, you’ve lost your pal, you’ve lost those you worked very closely with, with whom you share profound experiences, and resisting the impulse for revenge is very hard.  What’s it like in your profession?

  • 0:38:50
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Well again not very dissimilar.  We are all human and these are fundamental human, the most elemental of human conditions.  But, as for soldiers, the initial focus is not on revenge, it’s on recovery, as long as that’s going on and then, of course, the question of revenge against whom and because it was by no means who the architect of the attack had been.  This was again the beginning, the virtual beginning, of the suicide bomb era and the suspicion fell on a number of parties, initially the Palestinians because of the Sabra and Shatila massacre of the previous year, for which many held the U.S. accountable.  It was really a long time before I think the finger of blame sort of settled on Hezbollah.

  • 0:40:00
  • Interviewer
  • Is there ever a sense of, particularly in that part of the world, a sense of despair that these—this kind of conflict, historical conflict is irreparable?

  • 0:40:13
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Again I think despair is a luxury of distance and contemplation.  There was no distance.  This was ground zero and there certainly wasn’t any time for contemplation—you just get on with it.  And again I think the parallels with the military are clear.  If you are in the middle of the fight, no matter how bad it may look, you don’t say, “I despair”—you carry on with it and that’s what we all did.

  • Back to the Books
  • 0:40:50

  • 0:40:50
  • Interviewer
  • So Lebanon, you departed in ’84?

  • 0:40:54
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Mmm-hmm, I did.

  • 0:40:55
  • Interviewer
  • And you go to—?

  • 0:40:57
  • Ryan Crocker
  • I went to Princeton. I had a year of postgraduate studies under State Department auspices.  I’d mentioned earlier that I early came to the view that history was a hugely important and essential tool for a diplomat, particularly in the Middle East. Princeton, at that time, had what I considered the best Department of Middle East Studies in America. And I applied there and was accepted so I spent the academic year of ’84/ ’85—

  • 0:41:37
  • Interviewer
  • When Bernard Lewis there.

  • 0:41:38
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Bernard Lewis was there.  Carl Brown was there.  It was a really, really strong faculty.

  • 0:41:47
  • Interviewer
  • What did you come away learning? At this point you had been steeped in the whole Middle Eastern picture, so it’s interesting to go from the real-world circumstances to the books and the professors.  What did you take away from your experience there?

  • 0:42:07
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Well again my purpose in going was to study Middle Eastern history and that was pretty much a blank slate for me. I knew what was going on in the contemporary Middle East. I had some dim sense of the progression of events, post-World War II but almost no knowledge of everything that had preceded that, and I learned in the process just how important history is in understanding the forces and trends in the modern Middle East.

  • 0:42:46
  • Interviewer
  • So did you look back then on your time in Qatar, and Lebanon, and Iran, and Turkey and be able to say, “Ah-ha! That’s why that was that way, that’s why!” because you had been a-historical, in a sense, in your grasp of things and now you were becoming much more deeply historical?

  • 0:43:03
  • Ryan Crocker
  • For example I learned during that year at Princeton how historically important the clerics had been in Iran. The Shah thought he had done away with them in the ’60s, but one could see how deeply-rooted they were both in their own right and within Iranian society, all of that, of course, was something I was totally oblivious to during my time in Iran.

  • 0:43:38
  • Interviewer
  • Thinking back now, okay? So 1970—you experienced the 1979 revolution in Iran while you were in Iraq, is that right?

  • 0:43:47
  • Ryan Crocker
  • That is correct.

  • 0:43:48
  • Interviewer
  • And having been there and watching what was going on—did you think it as an isolated Iranian response to perhaps the Shah or to a kind of forced modernization?  Or did you see it then as something we may look back now as the first sign of the twenty-first century?

  • 0:44:13
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Again at that time, from that place, which was Iraq, it seemed to be a particularly Iranian phenomenon. It’s own particular history and expression of a Persian civilization and history, not so much an Arab one. The connection to the broader Middle East wasn’t apparent to me until I was in Lebanon a couple of years later and saw the forging of the Iranian/Syrian axis that began in some respects immediately after the Iranian Revolution.  But it was 1982 and the Israeli invasion that really brought them together and led to the birth of Hezbollah, and we could then see the carryover of Iranian Shia Islamism to Arab Shia Islamism.

  • 0:45:18
  • Interviewer
  • Now Bernard Lewis had been sort of on to this early himself, isn’t that right? Did you learn from him at Princeton what he was seeing as part of the galvanization of this Arab cross-national identification?

  • 0:45:37
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Bernard Lewis wrote early and brilliantly on the phenomenon of East meets West, the intersection and often the collision between the Western world and the Middle East, and I found that applicable both in a historical sense but also in a contemporary and even a predictive sense.  In my own personal view, Bernard Lewis has divided his work into two distinct periods—the earlier, and longer, period when he was a practicing academic as a member of the Princeton faculty and the period after he retired, for which he is better known. But in that second period, I think he felt himself free from the rigor of scholarship, more free to advance opinions, not necessarily based on research, and frankly I have found his earlier work to be more valuable, stronger, and more informative.

  • 0:47:00
  • Interviewer
  • Has he remained a friend? Is he someone that you stayed—

  • 0:47:02
  • Ryan Crocker
  • I haven’t seen him in years.

  • 0:47:05
  • Interviewer
  • So from Princeton, you go where?

  • 0:47:07
  • Ryan Crocker
  • From Princeton I had my first and one of only two assignments in Washington as Deputy Director of Israeli and Arab/Israeli Affairs. 

  • 0:47:17
  • Interviewer
  • And that would’ve been during the Reagan administration. 

  • 0:47:21
  • Ryan Crocker
  • ’85–’87, yes. 

  • 0:47:23
  • Interviewer
  • And from there to where? 

  • 0:47:27
  • Ryan Crocker
  • To Cairo as political counseler, from ’87 to 1990.

  • 0:47:31
  • Interviewer
  • I see so and then again that would be in the transition from the Reagan years to the Bush I years. 

  • 0:47:37
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Right. 

  • 0:47:38
  • Interviewer
  • So yet another Arab country here—describe Egypt by comparison to Lebanon, Iran and Iraq, and Qatar, and Turkey. I mean what do we see in Egypt, an historically bound country also? 

  • 0:47:56
  • Ryan Crocker
  • And that’s a very important point and this time I was informed by an appreciation of the history that I certainly didn’t have before.  And found that extremely valuable, knowing that a bit of Egypt’s history, as well as language, gave me entre that I may not have had before and the fact that I could quote some of Egypt’s historians really did give me an access that might otherwise have been denied and even more important—it gave me a framework for understanding historical events. Not remembered here at all but the year before I got there, there had been a police mutiny. Hundreds of Egyptian police conscripts had rioted over pay and conditions and—

  • 0:48:56
  • Interviewer
  • In Cairo.

  • 0:48:57
  • Ryan Crocker
  • In Cairo. And it had been very alarming to us. Again, the fear of revolution that the combination of poverty, of autocracy could bring about another Egyptian revolution. Again the perspectives I had now developed led me to think that there was far more continuity than risk of revolutionary change. We looked at it closely. We studied it regularly. We reported on it extensively, but I became fairly persuaded that Egypt was fundamentally a stable society, that the development of radical Islam was going to pose terrorist threats but was very unlikely to sweep away the regime. 

  • 0:50:03
  • Interviewer
  • Because you saw it within the context of Egyptian history as—or a continuum not as something—not a catalyst for dramatic change? 

  • 0:50:15
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Right. Egypt is hard to move, particularly once it was out of the shadow of the British. The British occupation delegitimized the monarchy, which then made its own serious mistakes that led to the initial revolution of 1952, but those factors I saw as not present.  I also again—with a deeper appreciation of Islam, its currents, and its forms—understood the Egyptian people to be very committed to their religion as an element of their identity and therefore remarkably resistant to some radical telling them that they weren’t good Muslims.  So I kind of thought that the Muslim Brotherhood and its spinoffs was going to have trouble—however desperate daily life might be for Egyptians—have trouble really getting traction among a people who thought they were just fine as practicing believers and didn’t need any coaching from somebody else. 

  • 0:51:28
  • Interviewer
  • That’s interesting—has it borne out? I’m just trying to compare this that countries where the attachment to religion may be weaker that radical Islam has had a greater footing. Has that been borne out?

  • 0:51:44
  • Ryan Crocker
  • There was that famous book by Arthur Koestler decades ago now, The God That Failed, an indictment of Soviet-style Communism.  In the Middle East there have been a number of gods that have failed as organizers of political life. What I found is that it really was in societies where Islam was not, if you will, a determinant of daily life—these societies were more vulnerable to the “ism” of the moment, whether that be Baathism, Arab Nationalism, its Palestinian variant, or what have you. Those in which Islam was deeply-rooted were much more resistant. 

  • 0:53:09
  • Ryan Crocker
  • A very potent force and again in a society like Egypt, the two are inextricably bound together, Egyptianism, if you will, and Islam. Curiously there is another very tight linkage and that is between Egyptianism and Christianity. Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority is fiercely Egyptian in their identity and consider themselves, with some historical justification—they are the original Egyptians.  These Islamic outsiders don’t have the same claim to the “Egyptianist” that they do. So national identity, perhaps not defined in the same way as the West, is a very, very potent force. You see it in Iraq, always one of the most fiercely nationalistic of nations and peoples and that is, of course, being asserted today. 

  • 0:53:48
  • Interviewer
  • And how does that interact with nationalism? We always think of nationalism as being a weaker force in the Arab world than it is in the West for instance. Is that true? Does it compete with religion? Is the attachment weakening with the rise of the global world? How does that compare, nationalism with—? 

  • 0:54:10
  • Interviewer
  • Even though Iraq is a newer nation than Egypt, right? I mean it’s not as—its nationalism is really post-World War I? Is that right or do I have my history wrong? 

  • 0:54:22
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Well again the shape of the modern Middle East emerged after the First World War, the lines on the map, but the cultural, the historical senses of identity are centuries old. Iraq has gone by that name since virtually the dawn of time, and again Iraqis are very aware of that long history and very proud of it. 

  • 0:54:59
  • Interviewer
  • They’re less likely to think of it as a political boundary as we think of in the post World War I definition than to think of it as a cultural or ethnic boundary?

  • 0:55:09
  • Ryan Crocker
  • One of the interesting aspects of the Middle East is the extent to which, in many respects, artificial boundaries that emerged in the ’20s had been boundaries that had been respected and for which the inhabitants of any given country are quite ready to fight and die for. One does not find Iraqis, or Kuwaitis for that matter, saying well, “this boundary has no meaning. It was drawn by the colonial hand.” No, these are boundaries to be defended to the last drop of blood, as we saw in the Iraq/Iran War, for example. 

  • 0:56:00
  • Interviewer
  • Yeah, you were in Iraq during the Iraq/Iran War? 

  • 0:56:02
  • Ryan Crocker
  • I left just about a month before it started.

  • A Traumatized Kuwait
  • 0:56:05

  • 0:56:05
  • Interviewer
  • Before it started. So you go from Egypt to where?

  • 0:56:12
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Well I left Egypt in 1990 to be ambassador to Lebanon. 

  • 0:56:19
  • Interviewer
  • And how did Lebanon look in 1990 by comparsion to 1982? 

  • 0:56:23
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Well I left in ’84, so it had been about six and a half years, and the increased devastation was stunning. Just the degree to which the country had physically, virtually destroyed itself, particularly in the Beirut area. 

  • 0:56:49
  • Interviewer
  • And what was the political strength of the regime in Lebanon at that time? 

  • 0:57:03
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Well the political strength lay with the Syrians, supported by the Iranians, and that was also a striking difference. The Syrians had been, of course, a major actor in Lebanon since the civil war, but they were now clearly the dominant power. 

  • 0:57:26
  • Interviewer
  • But does that mean that you had to deal directly with the Syrians?

  • 0:57:30
  • Ryan Crocker
  • No, I made it a point to make sure that didn’t happen, that if Lebanon’s sovereignty was challenged by Syrian domination it was nonetheless extremely important for the United States to respect the images and the forms of that sovereignty. So I was extremely careful to deal only with Lebanese. 

  • 0:57:55
  • Interviewer
  • And you were in Lebanon for how long, then? 

  • 0:57:57
  • Ryan Crocker
  • I was there for just about three years, ’90 to ’93.

  • 0:58:00
  • Interviewer
  • And then you went where? 

  • 0:58:02
  • Ryan Crocker
  • From Lebanon I was assigned as ambassador to Kuwait. 

  • 0:58:07
  • Interviewer
  • Kuwait and that would be the period in Kuwait after the Gulf War.

  • 0:58:14
  • Ryan Crocker
  • It was. I was there from ’94 to the end of ’97.

  • 0:58:18
  • Interviewer
  • And tell me what Kuwait was like, another different country. 

  • 0:58:22
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Well extraordinarily traumatized. Kuwait disappeared as a sovereign nation literally overnight, and the psychological impact on Kuwaitis in the mid ’90s was still huge—as it would be for anyone. 

  • 0:58:46
  • Interviewer
  • You say it disappeared as state, but the Iraqis were driven back so they were then defeated. So how did it disappear as a state? 

  • 0:58:54
  • Ryan Crocker
  • That it—again overnight—was totally occupied by an enemy power with its government gone, all the institutions of the state gone. 

  • 0:59:12
  • Interviewer
  • So that increased the sense of vulnerability is what you mean. 

  • 0:59:15
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Vulnerability at a level that I think an American cannot fully appreciate. It was more than the physical vulnerability. Again, their whole identity had been shaken, if not broken, but certainly compromised.   

  • 0:59:35
  • Interviewer
  • So how do you respond to that as an ambassador?

  • 0:59:38
  • Ryan Crocker
  • It was very, very important that Kuwaitis understood there was an absolutely rock-solid U.S. commitment to their sovereignty and to their territorial integrity—that it could not be emphasized too often. It could not really be emphasized enough. And to be sure that Washington was aware of how deep that trauma was and again how Kuwaitis saw us as the only guarantee that that little episode of history wouldn’t be repeated—as it almost was in 1994 when Saddam tested a relatively new administration under President Clinton by moving south again, and all the indicators were it was not an exercise, that this was an invading force. 

  • 1:00:39
  • Interviewer
  • And did you get the support from the Clinton administration that you wanted to— 

  • 1:00:46
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Yes. Again this was early in my own tenure, the ’94 crisis.  The Clinton administration responded immediately by deploying forces to fall in on a prepositioned armor set, within—literally within 48 hours.  Whatever Saddam intended, and we still don’t know, once he saw the firmness of the Clinton administration’s response he did turn that forced movement into an exercise. They just made a hard right turn instead of advancing further south. 

  • 1:01:30
  • Interviewer
  • You were in the embassy when that was all going on? 

  • 1:01:32
  • Ryan Crocker
  • I was. 

  • 1:01:34
  • Interviewer
  • And what did it feel like in Kuwait City during that time? 

  • 1:01:41
  • Ryan Crocker
  • There was a huge fear that history was going to repeat and almost desperate reliance on us to assure that it didn’t and a position by the Kuwaiti government that one thing would be different, that nobody was going to run this time.  And again, I certainly admire their courage and their commitment, because it kept the population steady. During the crisis there were actually more people returning to Kuwait rather than leaving it, but my decision was that we were not going to evacuate dependents. We were going to hold tight. I felt that any U.S. evacuation would’ve just caused wholesale panic. 

  • 1:02:39
  • Interviewer
  • This goes to the heart of another thing you mentioned last night, which was the sometimes disappointing American—on the question of American commitment—to remain someplace where we have been, in other words to back up our promises by staying close by.  You may infer this directly with Pakistan, but this is kind of an American tradition, isn’t it, to dive into the world and then want to dive back because of our—some of that—perhaps some of that cultural element that you mentioned before that Americans do like to sort of retreat or turn inward, right?

  • 1:03:18
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Well again we are a democracy, the world’s leading democracy, and that means literally that the people get a vote, and we saw this in Iraq. The election in 2002 basically was, in my interpretation—it was an election to have a war.  It was a vote to have a war. In 2006, in that midterm election there was the vote not to have the war anymore, but guess what?  The war is on. The film doesn’t reverse.

  • 1:03:59
  • Ryan Crocker
  • And I—our adversaries count on our inconsistency, our allies fear it.  Lebanon, again, in the early ‘80s, was a telling development. After the Marine barracks bombing, of course, the decision was taken to withdraw the Marines. And Syria and Iran learned something from that, and the lesson they learned was “apply pain and the Americans will go home” and “apply pain and the allies of the Americans will go home” because that’s what the Israelis did in 2000 when they made their final withdrawal from Lebanon. And that was the mindset they took into Iraq.

  • 1:04:00
  • Ryan Crocker
  • And here again is a lesson of the Middle East, historically. The Middle East knows it cannot keep out the great Western powers, whether it was Britain, France, or Russia in the nineteenth century, or whether it’s the United States in the twenty-first or the twentieth.

  • 1:05:06
  • Ryan Crocker
  • So they accept that the foreign armies will come. It’s what happens next. If you can’t keep them out with a strong left cross, then clench up and start pounding under the ribs and see how much they can take. That’s the lesson that Tehran and Damascus learned from Lebanon, and it has informed their policy I think for the following quarter of a century. And it’s what they expected in Iraq. And—

  • 1:05:39
  • Interviewer
  • What do you do as a diplomat in response that? Do you admit to this history and tell our allies that we’re going to be different now?

  • 1:05:48
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Well again it is why I think that strategic patience and consistency is important—critical. It’s why a good understanding of history is important, because once you’re in then all of these other factors come into play.  So be careful about what you get into. Be careful about your commitments. Be very informed about what undertakings you make because, boy, once you’re across the line of departure then the consequences become highly, highly significant if you decide you don’t like it anymore.

  • 1:06:29
  • Interviewer
  • Well this is consistent with the Powell Doctrine, right, which is if you enter something you ought to be fully committed and then you ought to—got to stay there to fix what you break, right?

  • 1:06:39
  • Ryan Crocker
  • I’d say in part. If the Powell Doctrine means overwhelming force, it’s really the day after, the month after, the year after. Again this is a region in which our adversaries may not even begin to fight until after we think we’ve won.  So it’s looking beyond the obvious. It’s looking certainly beyond the military equities.

  • 1:07:19
  • Interviewer
  • And also this strikes me as another clash of the different concepts of time as we were just describing a while back. So you go from Kuwait to where?

  • 1:07:27
  • Ryan Crocker
  • I left Kuwait in—at the end of 1997 and then went on as ambassador to Syria.

  • 1:07:34
  • Interviewer
  • To Syria. So you were in Syria in the late 1990s, is that right?

  • 1:07:37
  • Ryan Crocker
  • From ’98 to 2001.

  • A Bird’s Eye View of National Tragedy
  • 1:07:39

  • 1:07:39
  • Interviewer
  • To 2001? So were you in Syria on September 11th, 2001, or where were you? 

  • 1:07:46
  • Ryan Crocker
  • No I left Syria in June of 2001 and I’m—I then had my second of two assignments to Washington as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs.  And I was on the 8:00 a.m. USAir shuttle from Washington LaGuardia on 9/11, which meant we were making our descent toward LaGuardia when the first tower was hit. We could see it.

  • 1:08:19
  • Interviewer
  • You saw it? 

  • 1:08:20
  • Ryan Crocker
  • We saw— 

  • 1:08:21
  • Interviewer
  • Out of the plane you could see it?

  • 1:08:22
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Out of the plane we could see the smoke. None of understood what had happened, just that— 

  • 1:08:26
  • Interviewer
  • So there was smoke and then— 

  • 1:08:27
  • Ryan Crocker
  • There was a fire— 

  • 1:08:29
  • Interviewer
  • There was no information and— 

  • 1:08:30
  • Ryan Crocker
  • No we were one of the last flights that day to actually complete its scheduled route. Just as we landed, the second tower was hit. 

  • 1:08:44
  • Interviewer
  • And then you landed in LaGuardia—were you trying to get to Manhattan when they closed Manhattan then? 

  • 1:08:48
  • Ryan Crocker
  • I was. I was stuck in traffic on the Queensboro Bridge and watched both towers go down from the bridge.

  • 1:08:55
  • Interviewer
  • You could see it? 

  • 1:08:56
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Mmm-hmm. 

  • 1:08:57
  • Interviewer
  • You actually saw the crumbling towers? 

  • 1:08:58
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Mmm-hmm.

  • 1:08:59
  • Interviewer
  • Wow—what was your—you were in a taxi? 

  • 1:09:03
  • Ryan Crocker
  • I was. 

  • 1:09:04
  • Interviewer
  • What was your conversation with the taxi driver about at that time? 

  • 1:09:06
  • Ryan Crocker
  • He was a Muslim, an immigrant, and he was almost out of control. 

  • 1:09:17
  • Interviewer
  • Really? 

  • 1:09:18
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Just panicked. 

  • 1:09:19
  • Interviewer
  • Really? 

  • 1:09:21
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Because I think we all had the intuition that this had come out, somehow, of Islamic extremism, and he took us back to Long Island to the Avis Car Rental place and tried to refuse fare. I think he was just— 

  • 1:09:44
  • Interviewer
  • So he felt guilt-ridden and panicked that—

  • 1:09:47
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Yeah, again he didn’t articulate it in any way, but he was so emotional that he feared reprisal.

  • 1:09:55
  • Interviewer
  • You’re tearing up a little bit as you tell this. 

  • 1:09:57
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Well, you know even eight years into this— 

  • 1:10:00
  • Interviewer
  • Yeah.  It’s very, very—and so even in that exchange, it was an international event that rattled the life of a Muslim cab driver, too, right? That’s—who likely had no connection with anything to do with—but suddenly there was this rift between the two of you that he wanted to apologize for—

  • 1:10:24
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Right, right, right. And I gave him double the fare and had to shove it into his pocket.

  • 1:10:29
  • Interviewer
  • Really? Really? Then you got a car. Were you able to get to Manhattan?

  • 1:10:34
  • Ryan Crocker
  • No, no, Manhattan was sealed off, and I needed to get back to Washington then and, of course, Avis said you can have a car but you can’t take it off of Long Island. We said, “Sure, where do I sign?” And of course immediately drove up to Orient Point, got on the ferry and headed for Connecticut and made the long sweep down.

  • 1:10:56
  • Interviewer
  • I see. You drove all the way from Connecticut down to—down to Washington.

  • 1:11:01
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Down to Washington, yeah. And—but it was clear to me—my colleague, also a Middle Eastern specialist, now ambassador to Algeria, and I were talking—

  • 1:11:16
  • Interviewer
  • Who was that?

  • 1:11:18
  • Ryan Crocker
  • David Pierce. Most Americans didn’t focus on it, but a few days before Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was the leader of the Northern Alliance, who had held out in that northern part of Afghanistan against the Taliban had been assassinated in a suicide attack. And on the trip back to Washington we completed that equation. There was almost certainly in our mind a linkage between Massoud’s assassination and 9/11, that it had come out of Afghanistan. And that the architects were very careful to take the one threat off the field that could be an ally to us if we decided to retaliate.

  • 1:12:13
  • Interviewer
  • Had you been to Afghanistan before?

  • 1:12:16
  • Ryan Crocker
  • I had been there again as a student. It was one of the countries I hitchhiked through in the summer of 1970.

  • 1:12:23
  • Interviewer
  • So you’d come back to the State Department then in those days after September 11th and then obviously you’re deeply involved with what’s about to happen next.

  • 1:12:34
  • Ryan Crocker
  • I was. Within days I was on a plane to Geneva and really right after aviation resumed to engage the Iranians on Afghanistan.

  • 1:12:50
  • Interviewer
  • And what does that mean? Who were you sitting down with and what kind of conversations were you having with them?

  • 1:12:56
  • Ryan Crocker
  • There had been a mechanism in existence already for a couple of years, and it was called the Geneva Group.  The U.S., Iran, Italy and Germany, meeting under United Nations auspices to talk about Afghanistan’s refugees and so forth.  This had not had any policy significance at all. The Near East Bureau was not even involved in it but—

  • 1:13:22
  • Interviewer
  • It was purely humanitarian then?

  • 1:13:24
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Humanitarian, right. After 9/11 it assumed a whole different import. Because as divided as the U.S. and Iran were, we were united in the view of the Taliban, against whom Iran almost went to war in 1999. So we decided to see if we could use this existing channel to talk about Afghanistan in a far more serious way.

  • 1:13:51
  • Interviewer
  • And when you arrived in Geneva, was the Iranian response as vigorous immediately as you wished it to be?

  • 1:13:57
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Yes absolutely. The Iranians, from our early encounters there in Geneva, were pressing very hard for swift U.S. military action.

  • 1:14:09
  • Interviewer
  • And then it comes.

  • 1:14:11
  • Ryan Crocker
  • And then it comes.

  • An American Nation at War
  • 1:14:11

  • 1:14:11
  • Interviewer
  • And where were you when we made the decision to invade Afghanistan? 

  • 1:14:16
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Well I was actually in Geneva talking with the Iranians first week of October. 

  • 1:14:23
  • Interviewer
  • And then you yourself go to Afghanistan? 

  • 1:14:28
  • Ryan Crocker
  • I did, yes, right after New Year’s 2002, the first week in January. 

  • 1:14:32
  • Interviewer
  • This is after the fall of the Taliban. This is after the driving out of the Taliban, the success of the war, and you arrived to do what? Who are you—who are you going to be there? 

  • 1:14:43
  • Ryan Crocker
  • I was the chargé d’affaires of the embassy. Again among our perhaps systemic weaknesses is the length of time it takes to nominate and then confirm an ambassador.  And we needed somebody on the ground yesterday. So I was detached from my work in the Near East Bureau and asked to go out and get us going diplomatically in Kabul. Again the Afghan interim government had just been installed with Karzai as the chairman, his selection, under UN auspices, a product of U.S./Iranian concurrence, incidentally. But we needed to be there on the ground diplomatically and that was my job.

  • 1:15:40
  • Interviewer
  • Did we have an embassy in Kabul before that? 

  • 1:15:44
  • Ryan Crocker
  • The embassy in Kabul had been closed since 1989, and we reopened it at the end of 2001, the beginning of 2002. 

  • 1:15:55
  • Interviewer
  • So you literally arrived in Kabul to a physical building that has been locked up and closed all that time? 

  • 1:16:03
  • Ryan Crocker
  • That is correct, yes. It wasn’t exactly physically intact. It had taken a number of rockets. It was fairly badly damaged, and I learned all about being cold all the time, living, working, and sleeping in a building that didn’t have a lot of glass left in it. 

  • 1:16:27
  • Interviewer
  • How much did you rely upon the [U.S.-led] military presence in Afghanistan then to be able to construct that embassy from scratch, essentially? 

  • 1:16:34
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Well the military presence was absolutely critical. We had a company from the 4th Marine Expeditionary Brigade there, just under 90 Marines and Sailors. It was a concept that developed after the East African bombings—and really paid off for us, because these less than 100 Marines brought with them everything I needed to sustain that embassy. They had an indigenous intelligence capability, a medical capability, an engineering capability, even an anti-armor capability, so just a tremendous asset. 

  • 1:17:30
  • Interviewer
  • Describe to me your first encounter with Karzai then?

  • 1:17:35
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Well it was I think the day—the day I arrived or the day after I arrived, he was in the [Afghan] Presidential Palace, which didn’t look a whole lot better than the embassy did.  Bitterly cold inside, a reflection of all of the challenges that he and we would face—we couldn’t even get the heat turned on.  At that point he was not even the mayor of Kabul, let alone the ruler of Afghanistan.  And we just sat down and started to map through the steps that he and we would need to take to ensure that there was an Afghan government that could function like a government.  And again the challenge was almost beyond words.

  • 1:18:30
  • Interviewer
  • Even if you had the heat up and running, governing Afghanistan is a huge challenge.  It’s different than Iraq.  It’s different than Syria.  It’s different than even Lebanon. It’s different than any of the countries you had been posted to before this.  Talk to me about that.  It’s very tribal, right?

  • 1:18:47
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Well again history is instructive.  Afghanistan has never had a tradition of a strong central state.  The typography is challenging in the extreme.  The ethnic mixes are hugely diverse with Hazaras, Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Tajiks.  There is no common language.  And by 2001, we were looking at more than two decades of sustained conflict since the Soviet Invasion of ’79, a conflict that at its inception when the Soviets came in, they came into a desperately poor state with challenges of governance even then.

  • 1:19:45
  • Ryan Crocker
  • So Iraq for all of its difficulties and challenges was objectively far easier than Afghanistan.  No sustained chronic history of inter-nascent violence in Iraq.  A memory, if not the reality, of a middle class society where education was highly prized, where Iraqi families had the same expectations as American families and—finally, a source of income.  Afghanistan had absolutely none of those things.

  • 1:20:25
  • Interviewer
  • It’s chief source of income was the drug trade.

  • 1:20:28
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Right.

  • 1:20:30
  • Interviewer
  • When you got there could you even have identified the difference between a Pashtun and a Tajik or any of the ethnic—were you familiar at all with the ethnic divisions of the Afghanistan political state?

  • 1:20:44
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Again this is outside my regional specialty.  Afghanistan is South Asia.  I had not really studied it but because of what I had studied I at least had the wit to know what I didn’t know.  So the first thing I did is read a book by a former professor, now deceased, at West Point, Louis Dupré, who wrote the book called simply, Afghanistan.  It didn’t tell me what to expect in politics, but it certain told me what Afghanistan was in it geography, its history, its ethnicity.  And I basically toted that book around with me the whole time I was in Afghanistan.  It was hugely helpful.

  • 1:21:34
  • Interviewer
  • Now not long after you arrived there, plans for Operation Anaconda are negotiated.  Tell me about that when you first heard of it and how you—what part you played in that operation.

  • 1:21:50
  • Ryan Crocker
  • I had the opportunity to meet General Hagenbeck who had returned to Afghanistan to assume command of the 10th Mountain.  But, more broadly, conventional forces in Afghanistan—a very important step and one that I, in retrospect, believe we should’ve taken earlier.  I went out to see him at—

  • 1:22:24
  • Ryan Crocker
  • You say to the step of introducing conventional forces and—

  • 1:22:28
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Introducing conventional forces under unified command because again when I got there, my kind of question was, “Who’s in charge?”  And for the military, there was no clear answer.  It was not a conventional force commander—the Special Forces had Afghanistan divided into two sections, one commanded from Kandahar, the other from Uzbekistan.

  • 1:23:02
  • Ryan Crocker
  • And I remember getting on the phone to the CFLCC commander, Lt. Gen Mikolashek, who had been my OMC chief when I was ambassador to Kuwait and again, personal relationships are so important in military life and diplomatic life, and I said, “Who’s in charge here?” [Laughter]  And he was aware of it.  He said, “We’re working on it, we’re working on it.”  But it made a huge difference when General Hagenbeck arrived because then with those two stars it was clear who was in charge.  What did I know about the concept of operations for Anaconda?  I’m a civilian.

  • 1:23:51
  • Ryan Crocker
  • I do know there were some resource concerns, and those resource issues became pretty clear once Anaconda was underway.  We really did not have armor for that fight, and it became clear that we were up against an entrenched enemy, against whom armor was going to be important.  So my mission was to negotiate the safe passage of a Tajik armored element, belonging to the Northern Alliance into the heart of the Pashtun region, and it was not an easy process.

  • 1:24:37
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Diplomacy is sometimes seen as, or interpreted as, being nice to people.  In this particular case, I was negotiating with a member of Karzai’s cabinet whose brother was the primary tribal leader in the area and was saying they will not pass.  And after explaining how this element was only in it for the purposes of Anaconda, the fight against those who were fighting us.  They had no intention of inserting themselves into Pashtun affairs and getting nowhere.

  • 1:25:22
  • Ryan Crocker
  • I finally delivered the bottom line which is, “Look, if you resist this advance, you will be fighting us,” and this bearded 6’2 Pashtun with whom I was talking by light of kerosene lanterns at night said, “Oh, oh!”  And it was okay from then on in.  We were able to get the armor down, but the fact that we had to resort to asking the Northern Alliance to provide several companies of T55 tanks, because we didn’t have anything suggested this was an under-resourced operation.

  • 1:26:10
  • Interviewer
  • Now Karzai was not told about Anaconda until just a couple of days before.

  • 1:26:15
  • Ryan Crocker
  • That’s right.

  • 1:26:17
  • Interviewer
  • What did that do to your relationship with him?

  • 1:26:20
  • Ryan Crocker
  • He was actually fine with it.

  • 1:26:22
  • Interviewer
  • He was.

  • 1:26:24
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Yeah, he again he had his hands so utterly full of everything that he was not in any way presenting himself as the commander-in-chief of all military operations in Afghanistan.  He appreciated being notified before the fact and wished us well.  And again the whole effort to bring Tajik armor down—again I informed him we were going to be doing this, or attempting to do it.  But he was not really involved in the process.

  • 1:27:09
  • Interviewer
  • Was that your primary role in terms of Anaconda was the diplomatic exchange in order to release the Tajik armor, or did you have another part in the operation?

  • 1:27:19
  • Ryan Crocker
  • I was intensively engaged with the CIA at that time but obviously not something at this remove I can go into in any detail.

  • No Time for Despair in Iraq
  • 1:27:34

  • 1:27:34
  • Interviewer
  • Right, from Afghanistan you go into Iraq, is that right?  Or was there a period in between?

  • 1:27:39
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Well there was. I did go to Afghanistan from Iraq almost directly. I left in Kabul at the end of March and the beginning of April, I was in Iraqi Kurdistan. This was in 2002.  I made a series of visits at the beginning of December ’01 to Iraqi Kurdistan in the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom—both to encourage and to steady the Kurds. Our main message there was, “Trust us.” No decision had been taken on OIF, but my main purpose was to ensure the Kurds did not do anything unilaterally. 

  • 1:28:29
  • Interviewer
  • And given the history of the previous war and the Kurds that must have been very hard. 

  • 1:28:40
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Well again history, even recent history, but Kurdish history is a long and bloody one and a very uneven one with the U.S. History can be a help because part of the message was, “We don’t need another 1991.  We have got to work together, we have got to coordinate together, we cannot surprise each other.  We can’t surprise you, you can’t surprise us. We don’t want—however this goes—we do not want to see it be another run for the refuge of the mountains.” And again, I think, they appreciated that.

  • 1:29:18
  • Interviewer
  • So what you’re saying is that history can be used to say we won’t do something as well as— 

  • 1:29:21
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Exactly. 

  • 1:29:22
  • Interviewer
  • So you reversed it, in a sense, from what might have been the initial response.  So where were you when the invasion of Iraq began?

  • 1:29:32
  • Ryan Crocker
  • I was in Ankara, Turkey, getting set to head for the airport to take a plane back to Washington, having totally failed in one, final, last-ditch effort to get the Turks to agree to allow the 4th ID to come down from the north.

  • 1:29:50
  • Interviewer
  • And so the 4th ID ended up having to come down—come up from the south—

  • 1:29:53
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Exactly and that—our failure to be able to move through Turkey had consequences in Iraq that are still present.

  • 1:30:07
  • Interviewer
  • Talk to me about that, about the negotiations and the consequences, because we have a number of 4th ID personnel that we’ve interviewed and that was a pretty tragic step for them that they were so ready to go from the north, right?

  • 1:30:22
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Well they were just boring holes in the GNC aboard ship.  It was—yeah, I—again you don’t spend a career in diplomacy without some singular failures and that’s one I’ll never forget.

  • 1:30:38
  • Interviewer
  • Now tell me about the nature of the negotiation, and what strategies you tried to employ, and why you think it failed?

  • 1:30:51
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Well there was a—if you recall the whole issue required parliamentary approval. For a moment we thought we had it.  The vote actually did carry to approve the transit of the troops but then on a more detailed count, it was discovered that there were not enough deputies in total present in the chamber to make it a legal vote.

  • 1:31:25
  • Interviewer
  • There was a quorum so to speak though.

  • 1:31:27
  • Ryan Crocker
  • There was a quorum but under Turkish procedures, you have to have more than a quorum for certain votes. And again I’m not a specialist on Turkey. We consider that part of our European Bureau, the same organization that the military has, as part of EUCOM, its not part of CENTCOM, so I can’t pretend to fully understand Turkish politics, then or now. But what I clearly sensed was this was about more than simply a reluctance to have Turkey be involved in the invasion of its neighbor.   It was also caught up in Turkish internal politics and in particular the tensions between the Turkish General Staff and an Islamist Civilian Government. And I believe that it was those tensions that the civilian government was prepared to support this endeavor that resulted in the ultimate failure.

  • 1:32:39
  • Ryan Crocker
  • The Turkish General Staff did not throw its weight behind the effort, they did not use their influence in parliament that I think could’ve led to a successful vote, and they would not authorize the expediencies that would’ve allowed us to transit them in any case closer to the day.  I invoked everything I could think with Bob Pierson, who was our ambassador.  We recalled the long history of the U.S./Turkish alliance, how we had stood together against the Soviet threat, how we had stood together in Korea when they deployed forces and behaved with extraordinary valor. It was not within my mandate to call into question the future of the relationship, but I tried to hint at it by talking about the past and, of course, we did not succeed in convincing them.

  • 1:33:43
  • Interviewer
  • It’s interesting. I’ve always wondered what goes on behind closed doors on those kinds of negotiations and you’re saying that you tried to put the request in some kind of historical context because that’s very important, of course, for all of the reasons we related and yet if the answer is no, the answer is no, I guess.

  • 1:34:03
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Right and again the administration, as important as all this, was clearly—and I believe rightly—saw our long-term equities with Turkey as such that they were not in any way prepared to have a threat issued. And again, at the time, I was more than ready to do some threatening, but I think they were right.

  • 1:34:30
  • Interviewer
  • Now what—since this is a very—since this is certainly germane to the world that we’re standing in right now, where the relationship between State and Defense under such a circumstance must be very delicate, am I right? It’s a Defense request but State is having to negotiate.

  • 1:34:47
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Right.

  • 1:34:48
  • Interviewer
  • How does that work?

  • 1:34:50
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Well first again because it is so hugely important to Defense, you have as a key component of the team, the military.  And we had a two-star general as part of the team. I can’t remember [his name] now. And it has to be that way. For all of the differences that were present at that time between State and Defense—and that’s a whole other chapter—between Rumsfeld and Powell, on this issue there was absolutely no daylight. Again we’re the negotiators, but boy we did everything we could to try to make that happen because it was so critical to the war effort.

  • 1:35:01
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Okay.

  • 1:35:44
  • Interviewer
  • As an aside, I mean, you worked for many different Secretaries of State. I know we’re getting close to the—are you—

  • 1:35:54
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Yeah, I’m really—

  • 1:35:55
  • Interviewer
  • Okay.

  • 1:35:56
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Yeah.

  • 1:35:57
  • Interviewer
  • About five more minutes, would that be all right?

  • 1:35:58
  • Interviewer
  • Probably the next three or four minutes would be good.

  • 1:36:00
  • Interviewer
  • Okay, alright.

  • 1:36:02
  • Interviewer
  • Tell me about your relationships, your impressions of the many secretaries of state that you worked under.

  • 1:36:11
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Well it only really starting with Colin Powell that I had kind of a really direct and sustained relationship. I of course knew previous secretaries and as an ambassador, you know your Secretary of States. So that goes back to James Baker. Baker, Christopher, Albright, but it was really with Colin Powell that I had a fairly intensive and extensive relationship. So with Powell and then with Rice?

  • 1:36:54
  • Interviewer
  • So your impressions of those two?

  • 1:36:56
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Extraordinary figures, both of them. You have the sense that you are dealing with pillars of history.  These are individuals that are shaping history and watching them deal with overwhelming challenges and crises and watching the two of them— and I’m sure their predecessors were the same way I just didn’t experience it directly—the way they maintain composure, focus, consistency, sort of an even keel, it helps me understand why they got to the positions they reached.

  • 1:37:47
  • Interviewer
  • One last question. So you arrive in Iraq as ambassador in 2007, is that right?

  • 1:37:53
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Right, March, 2007.

  • 1:37:55
  • Interviewer
  • And just quickly if you could give me a run-up to the situation on your arrival and then upon your departure in January of 2009.

  • 1:38:04
  • Ryan Crocker
  • A very different place in ’09 and ’07.  In 2007, it was like my return to Beirut after a number of years except far worse.  My first visit to a Baghdad neighborhood, the first week I was there, the neighborhood of Dora, into which a Surge brigade had just deployed, brought to mind the term hopeless.  The level of devastation, the mood and attitudes of the people just caused me to go back to the office and think, “How did I get into this and how am I ever gonna get out of it?”  And David Petraeus had [laughs] much the same view.  He’s talked about it at the same time but again, you know, despair is not an option.  You just have to get on with it and start chipping it out.

  • 1:39:07
  • Interviewer
  • And so by 2009?

  • 1:39:09
  • Ryan Crocker
  • By 2009, I left right after the conclusion of the very successful second round of provincial elections which took place in a totally violence-free atmosphere in which the Sunni boycott had been overcome by extensive Sunni participation and which the losers accepted the results.  So I left at a time, I think, of real hope.  We had just negotiated two historic agreements with Iraq both on our strategic partnership and the status of our forces, which were a roadmap for the new administration, and I had been involved in my last weeks preparing options for General Odierno for the new administration.  So I felt that I was leaving at a time not at which one could declare a victory by any means but in which there was real hope.

  • 1:40:07
  • Interviewer
  • And your impression of your successor?

  • 1:40:10
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Chris Hill is one of our top professionals.  He has been at this a long, long time, and he knows how to do it.  I think the new administration chose very well.

  • 1:40:20
  • Interviewer
  • Thank you very much.

  • 1:40:21
  • Ryan Crocker
  • Okay!  Thank you!

DESCRIPTION

Ryan Crocker, a leading diplomat in the U.S. State Department, played a central role in shaping American policy towards the Middle East over a distinguished career spanning decades; a witness to critical moments of transformative change, Crocker's diplomatic work ranged from postings in civil war torn Lebanon, the aftermath of Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, and the heralded 2007 surge in Iraq.

VIDEO DETAILS

conflicts Iraq War
topics Strategies Patriotism
interviewer Todd Brewster

BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS

name Ryan Crocker
institution Whitman College
graduation year 1971
unit U.S. Department of State
specialty Ambassador
service dates 1972
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