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Ambassador Crocker Candid About Challenges of Mideast

FullTextImage/img/@altCareer Ambassador Ryan Crocker received VMI's Distinguished Diplomat Award Monday. -- VMI Photo by Kevin Remington.

Be Careful What You Get into and Be Careful How You Get Out of It, Advises Crocker

LEXINGTON, Va., Oct. 1, 2013 – Career Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who’s been posted to six Middle Eastern and South Asian countries in the last 30 years, became the ninth recipient of VMI’s Distinguished Diplomat Award on Monday, Sept. 30. Previous recipients have included the late Jeane Kirkpatrick, the first woman to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Crocker, whose previous awards include the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, told a packed audience in the Gillis Theater at the Center for Leadership and Ethics that he was “touched and humbled” to follow in the footsteps of the award’s previous recipients. “This [award] means the world to me,” Crocker said.

Because the Distinguished Diplomat Award is given by VMI’s international studies department, the ambassador spent much time in that department’s home, Scott Shipp Hall, during his day on post.

Before receiving the award, Crocker spoke to Col. Jim Hentz’s National Security Policy class.

“It was a very informal talk, with us just getting to pick his brain about stuff he’s more intelligent about than us,” said Cadet Travis Via ’15. “We asked him about the Syrian conflict and the Egyptian conflict in the past, and what both look like toward the future.”

Via continued, “I thought [his remarks] were really insightful. Obviously, we’re not experts. We’re taking a national security class, so this is us learning about this for the first time. He’s been doing this for 37 years and that’s very, very impressive. It definitely gave us a deeper insight into some of the conflicts, and he’s worked firsthand with some of these people.”

In the afternoon, the ambassador met with a group of 10 to 12 cadets in the international studies library for a question-and answer session. Throughout his visit, Crocker was thoughtful and candid about the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and the ability of the U.S. to at least keep those conflicts from escalating. He also narrated his career path, which began with a desire to see more of the world than rural Washington state, where he attended Whitman College.

A native of Spokane, Wash., who grew up in an Air Force family, Crocker began his Foreign Service career in 1972, serving as a member of the American consulate in pre-revolutionary Iran. Later, in 1983, he was serving in Lebanon when the American embassy there was bombed. In 1990, Crocker was in Egypt, acting as political counselor at the American embassy in Cairo, when an assistant secretary of state asked him to become ambassador to Lebanon.

“I’d served three long, hard years in Lebanon,” Crocker told the group of cadets gathered Monday afternoon for the question-and-answer session. “They wanted somebody who knew the language and the players and the incredibly complex political dynamics.” He added, “They also wanted somebody who was expendable.” In such a violent part of the world, Crocker speculated, the U.S. State Department didn’t want to risk the life of an experienced ambassador.

It was the beginning of Crocker’s more than two decades of ambassadorship in nations torn apart by either sectarian violence, outside aggression, or a combination of both.

Crocker drew laughter from the audience in Gillis Theater when he summed up his career by saying, “I managed to be chosen for lengthy tours of duty in countries that no sane person would spend a weekend in,”

After serving as ambassador to Lebanon from 1990 to 1993, Crocker served in Kuwait, Syria, and Pakistan, before accepting a posting to war-torn Iraq from 2007 to 2009. At that point, he retired from the Foreign Service, but he came out of retirement in July 2011 when President Barack Obama asked him to become ambassador to Afghanistan. A year later, he stepped down for health reasons.

Since 2010, Crocker has been serving as dean and executive professor of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.

After receiving the distinguished diplomat award, Crocker gave remarks titled “Lessons from a Long War: U.S. Interest in the Middle East,” in which he offered insights into the current political situation in that part of the world – a situation that he said began in the year 1798, when Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt.

“That began what I would describe as the modern era in relations between Arab states and the West,” said Crocker.

That modern era, he remarked, has seen Arabic countries invaded by Western powers, over and over again. Because of this, Crocker said, a “politics of reaction” has developed, in which Middle Eastern nations appear to capitulate to an invader but actually bide their time until the invader thinks victory has been achieved. It is at this moment that the counterpunch comes, said Crocker. Failure to recognize this pattern has been the downfall of foreign powers, including the United States, time and again, the ambassador pointed out.

“We’re Americans,” Crocker noted. “We don’t do history well. We didn’t build this great country by looking backwards.”

Americans, the longtime diplomat observed, are concerned with tomorrow, while Middle Easterners look to the past. “In that part of the world, yesterday shaped today, and determines tomorrow,” he said. ‘Those yesterdays will eat you alive if you’re not aware of them.”

Because those yesterdays are so omnipresent in the Middle East, the first lesson from a long war was “be careful what you get into,” the ambassador said.

The second lesson flows directly from the first. “If you need to be careful about what you get into, you need to be at least as careful about what you may intend to get out of,” said Crocker. “Disengagement can have consequences at least as great as the original intervention.”

The ambassador went on to say that Middle Easterners have come to count on Americans lacking what he termed “strategic patience.” Like historical awareness, patience is not a typical American virtue, Crocker noted, as it flies in the face of our “get ‘er done” work ethic.

As evidence of this, Crocker recalled the time in 2007 when he was ambassador to Iraq and Gen. David Petraeus was commanding general of the multi-national peacekeeping force in that nation. The two men spent hours testifying before an impatient Congress as to why it would be detrimental to withdraw American troops from Iraq at that point.

“Other countries watch us and they draw lessons,” said Crocker.

The ambassador said that a clear example of this was the withdrawal of U.S. Marines from Lebanon in 1984, after a bomb ripped through a barracks housing U.S. military personnel there in 1983 and killed 241 Americans. The lesson Middle Easterners learned was, “If you inflict pain on them, they will go,” Crocker observed. “After all, it’s not their country.”

Both on the stage in Gillis and in his interactions with cadets, Crocker offered plainspoken assessments about potentially incendiary situations in Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may indeed get rid of his chemical weapons, the ambassador noted. “He doesn’t need them,” said Crocker. “He’s got his conventional weapons.”

During the question-and-answer session, Cadet Kyle Taylor ’16 noted that 13 car bombs had gone off in Baghdad that day alone. He asked Crocker if the ambassador thought the Iraqi government was strong enough to stand this constant assault of violence.

“My own view is that we need to be doing more in Iraq to help stop the violence,” said Crocker. “Ultimately there will be one too many [car bombs] for the social fabric to bear. … I would like to see much more robust American diplomacy, including visits by the secretary of state.”

In Gillis, Crocker spoke about Iran, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, with whom he met last week in New York. Rouhani “is at least talking the talk” on using nuclear enrichment for a source of power only, and not for weaponry, said Crocker. The ambassador added, though, not to expect too much from Iran.

“I am reasonably certain we are not going to see a Persian spring, as much as you might want it,” Crocker observed.

Putting his diplomatic skills to use, Crocker used the occasion of that question to praise “the incredible courage of ordinary citizens” who get up every day and attempt to live their lives in those fragmented lands.

“Yeah, I got shot at every now and again,” Crocker commented, “but I had a reinforced car and embassy, and I could go back to the United States if I wanted to. [The citizens of other nations] are home.”