As a US diplomat in Lebanon in 1983, Ryan Crocker survived an embassy bombing that revealed America's exposure to a festering civil war – and portended the deepening Middle East divides to come.
Now Mr. Crocker, the US ambassador to Pakistan, has been tapped by President Bush to join a reshuffled diplomatic and military "Team Iraq." It's an assignment for which a deep knowledge of the political and cultural complexities at play, both in Iraq and regionally, will be a huge plus.
Crocker – who is part of the crucial policymaker portion of the new Iraq strategy that Mr. Bush is scheduled to announce Wednesday night – would become the top US diplomat in Iraq as ambassador in Baghdad. As such, he would join a new team whose goal will be to stave off full-blown civil war in Iraq, as well as the disastrous regional and security consequences that would be very likely to accompany it.
The team that Bush has freshly assembled, spanning the State Department and the Pentagon, has nothing of the sharp ideological bent that both got the Bush administration's Iraq policy in trouble in the first place and kept it from seeing the policy mistakes that were made, experts say.
But some look beyond the steely professionalism and impressive records of the team members and wonder who among them will play the "bad cop" with the Iraqis – in other words, who will require the political decisions that these experts say will determine whether Iraq can be salvaged or not.
"This is a team of people in their careers 20 to 30 years. They aren't driven by ideology, and they know their stuff," says Edward Walker, a former assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs. "But somebody is going to have to be the tough guy and tell the Iraqis there is no more free ride."
Comparing the place the United States is in now with the war and ethnic cleansing it faced in Bosnia in the 1990s, Ambassador Walker says, "In that mix, you had Richard Holbrooke [former US ambassador to the United Nations], a tough guy who knocked heads together and got the Dayton peace accords. I don't see that player on this team."
Other key shifts in Bush's Iraq team include:
•Returning John Negroponte, who has been director of national intelligence, to the State Department to shoulder the Iraq effort as deputy to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. This would free her up to dedicate more time to the broader Middle East.
•Putting Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, a counterinsurgency expert and advocate of deploying more troops in Iraq for a broader security role, in charge of coalition forces in Iraq.
•Nominating Mike McConnell, a retired vice admiral with 25 years of intelligence experience, as director of national intelligence to replace Mr. Negroponte.
•Choosing Zalmay Khalilzad, US ambassador to Iraq, to replace John Bolton as US ambassador to the UN.
The shifting of policymakers actually started last November with the replacement of Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of Defense by former CIA Director Robert Gates. Mr. Rumsfeld's views, which held that a light US footprint would be enough to husband the transition to a stable and democratic Iraq, did not fit with Bush's conclusion that more troops would be needed to secure Baghdad and give the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki a chance to succeed.
In a sense, the departure of Rumsfeld was like the changing of the guard at the White House information and influence gate: Advocates of what was to become the president's "way forward" suddenly had better access to Bush.
"The centerpiece [of our military strategy in Iraq] has always been 'develop the Iraqi Security Forces' – not 'defeat the insurgency,' " says retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, an advocate of a large and sustained troop increase.
Now a consultant who has prepared annual assessments of Iraq security for the Pentagon, General Keane met with Bush in mid-December to discuss a revised strategy. His visit exemplified how the White House became more accessible to war-escalation advocates after Rumsfeld's departure.
Key to the policy shift was the naming of General Petraeus as senior US commander in Iraq. The guiding force behind the military's new counterinsurgency manual, Petraeus has long differed with the emphasis on training Iraqi forces over providing civilian security.
He is "the most qualified general officer we have to undertake this change in Iraq strategy," says Keane.
In Iraq during the invasion as leader of the 101st Airborne Division, Petraeus made known his concerns about the rioting and lawlessness that was allowed to boil over in Baghdad after the ouster of Saddam Hussein. He later voiced worry about the security impact of disbanding the Iraqi Army.
Those concerns dovetailed with the thinking of Crocker, who was in charge of governance issues in Baghdad for several months after the invasion.
Until recently, Bush had been deferential to the positions of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, practically making a mantra of saying he adhered to the judgments of his top generals in making military decisions. But the Iraq team reshuffle is evidence that the president is no longer wedded to that approach if it means sticking with policies that clash with his vision.
"The president has retaken control of Iraq strategy," says Frederick Kagan, a military historian at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and prominent advocate of a large troop increase. "The administration has made itself more independent of the generals."
Independent of the generals, maybe, but still largely dependent on what the Iraqi leadership does. And that means influencing the Iraqi government will be one of the new Iraq team's biggest tests, experts say.
Negroponte and Crocker are "two consummate diplomats," says Mr. Walker, who is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, "but maybe too consummate. Neither one is confrontational."
Crocker will be taking the reins of US diplomacy in Baghdad after more than two years in Islamabad – another key US partner in the battle with Islamic extremism.
But the American relationship with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf mirrors the prevailing approach to Mr. Maliki, analysts say, in that the US has not been ready to force either to take the hard steps it would like to see – that is, Mr. Musharraf confronting the Islamist extremists active on the border with Afghanistan, or Maliki disbanding Iraq's militias and pushing through key political decisions like constitutional reforms and oil-revenue legislation.
Crocker, who prefers foreign assignments and has studiously avoided any major policymaking stints in Washington, will be following orders from Washington. Many eyes will be watching for whether the order to "get tough" comes down.
"The administration hasn't been ready to abandon [Musharraf] in that he is the only thing standing between us and an explosive situation in Pakistan that would hurt us," says Walker. "The situation with Maliki is analogous, but I'm not sure this Iraq team is any more prepared to say, 'We're not going over the cliff with you.' "