Former US ambassador to Iraq reflects on life outside green zone

Ryan Crocker was a major force in helping to turn around Iraq, Presidents Bush and Obama say.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Ryan Crocker, shown here receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, was a major force in helping to turn around Iraq, Presidents Bush and Obama say.

The former ambassador to Iraq was simply trying to go home.

For the man who, along with Gen. David Petraeus, has been credited with pulling Iraq back from the brink of civil war – a man who careened through the streets of Baghdad bracketed by armed guards and bedecked in body armor – driving across the Washington state line into Spokane would not seem to be the most complicated of tasks.

"What could be farther away from rolling through Baghdad in a convoy of armored Suburbans than slipping into fifth gear on an empty highway in Montana?" Ryan Crocker quips in an e-mail.

But many things have changed while Mr. Crocker has been abroad.

The new emission standards that prevented him from registering his cherry-red Mustang convertible in Washington state are among the smallest. Iraq itself is arguably the largest.

President Bush, the man who sent Crocker to Iraq as ambassador in 2007, awarded him the Medal of Freedom – America's highest civilian honor – in part for his work in Iraq. President Obama has extolled Crocker as "an example of the very best that this nation has to offer, and we owe him a great debt of gratitude."

Crocker was in Iraq in the late 1970s when Saddam Hussein executed his cabinet to establish himself as the nation's supreme ruler. He was in the US Embassy in Beirut in 1983 when a car bomb killed 64 and blew him against a wall. Angry mobs overran the US Embassy in Damascus when he was ambassador to Syria, and three years later, in 2001, he reopened the American Embassy in Kabul after the Taliban had fled.

He is a diplomat's diplomat, someone renowned for taking the world's toughest posts – and thriving in them.

In late April, Crocker wrapped up that 35-year diplomatic career. In two interviews and several e-mails, he assesses Iraq and looks forward to what's next.

Patience is his watchword.

Iraq has been crumbling for decades, he says, enduring three wars and on-again, off-again economic sanctions since 1980. It will take years to restore any kind of normalcy, he adds.

He knows of what he speaks. Crocker is no armchair diplomat. In college,he hitchhiked from Amsterdam to India. Years later, when finishing hisArabic-language training for the State Department, he went to live with nomadic shepherds in the deserts of Jordan. Mr. Bush referred to him as "America's Lawrence of Arabia."

True to form, Crocker insisted on leaving the heavily fortified Green Zone during his first week in Baghdad in 2007.

"I made it a point to get out, otherwise you would have a totally warped perspective of reality," he says.

His goal: Talk with ordinary Iraqis.

"Iraqis have the reputation of being the toughest guys on the Middle East block. It's so great because they don't get intimidated at all, you know.... They are perfectly ready to tell you what's wrong with American policy and American implementation," Crocker says.

And they did. The week he arrived, Crocker visited the Sunni neighborhood of Dora – a scene of destruction Crocker describes as resembling postwar Berlin: "Al Qaeda was very much present and you could hear explosions and gunfire."

But what concerned Crocker most was not terrorists, but doctors. "I asked how did they get to a hospital, and their answer was they don't. To get to the nearest hospital meant crossing a bridge over the river, and the bridge is controlled by a National Police checkpoint," he says.

At the checkpoint, "people would disappear," he recalls the Iraqis saying.

"It was a devastating experience," Crocker says. "I read the reports. I had the briefings. But to go down and talk to the people … I came back and thought ... 'I don't think we can do this.' "

It is the sort of comment that led Bush to dub him "Sunshine" – a playful dig at Crocker's refusal to cloak briefs in rosy hues. Indeed, at the behest of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, Crocker in late 2002helped write a six-page assessment of likely outcomes of the US invasion of Iraq. It predicted that the invasion could unleash centuries-old ethnic and sectarian tensions that Mr. Hussein had brutally suppressed.

In 2007, he found himself trying to curb the very forces he had foreseen.

He does not join the chorus of blame against Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, for disbanding the Army and expelling all members of Hussein's Baath Party from government. The move was widely criticized as freezing out the only Iraqis who knew how to run and defend the country.

Keeping the Army was not an option. "We would have lost the Shia and the Kurds because that was Saddams's army," Crocker says. "We could have moved more quickly to establish the new Iraqi forces and the pensions."

The de-Baathification regulations were well-crafted, Crocker adds, but were overwhelmed by release of tensions 30 years in the making.

The bloodshed between 2004 and 2007 "was payback. And then it was payback for the payback. In the last year, we are seeing far more tolerance.Given the legacy of the past, you've got to go through some pretty ugly things … it may be an evolution that we and the Iraqis are just going to have to work through," he says.

Crocker has been through his own journey since his days as an Air Force officer's son, moving from Morocco to Turkey to Canada.

Crocker was first posted to Baghdad in 1978. Setting the tone for the career that would come, it was an eventful time, professionally and personally. Hussein seized power, Iraq invaded Iran, and Crocker me this future wife, Christine, who was a foreign service secretary there.They have never had any children, with Crocker acknowledging that it was a choice they had to make: raise a family or accept posts in the world's most dangerous locales.

The stint in Baghdad also gave him an appreciation for how much Iraq atrophied under Hussein. Through his loyalty tests and secret police, Hussein "had a paralyzing effect on good governance," Crocker says. "The impact is huge. You are trying to deliver services but you don't have anyone around to do the work. We all complain about bureaucracy but it was a very educational experience to find out what you get when the bureaucracy isn't around any more."

To Crocker, the No. 1 problem facing Iraq is rule of law.

"It does not grab the headlines like a suicide bomber does," but criminal gangs, official corruption, and assassination of judges can destroy trust and stability, he says. "What that illustrates, too, is how long the Iraqi story is going to be … after six years this is still the introduction," he adds.

Even for "Sunshine," though, there are rays of hope: 18 months after Crocker first visited Dora "tens of thousands of Shia pilgrims walked through Sunni Dora on their way to the shrines at Karbala. In 2007, that would have been insane. The people of Dora – and they are very proud of this – set up stands and provided food and water to the pilgrims just out of hospitality. For free."

"Does that mean everything is good forever and always?" he asks rhetorically. "No, of course it doesn't. But it does show that significant, positive change is possible."

Crocker's next change is a familiar one, as he returns to Spokane, his boyhood home. The man who drove a pickup in Washington, D.C., is looking forward to being just another American behind the wheel of a hot car in a place where most summer weekends offer hot-rod events.

He is planning to put down roots at last and build a home in the suburban Spokane Valley. The U-pick corn and berry patches from Crocker's youth have been roto-tilled into gated communities and shopping malls, but when Crocker paid a visit to Spokane recently to look for temporary housing, he found his childhood home, sold in 2005, back on the rental market.

"I ... checked Craigslist, and there it was," he says. "This time, I don't have to sleep in the basement."

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