Global Policy Forum

Ryan Clark Crocker, a Diplomat Used to Danger


By Scott Shane

New York Times
January 6, 2007

When Ryan C. Crocker was trying to improve his Arabic in the late 1970s, he traveled to Jordan, made contact with a desert tribe and settled in for some hands-on training a little different from the standard State Department regimen. "He wound up being a shepherd for a week or two, chasing down stray sheep and living with the Bedouin," said Frederic C. Hof, a retired Army officer and author on the Middle East who recalls reading Mr. Crocker's official report on the trip when they were in language training.

Mr. Crocker, President Bush's choice as the new ambassador to Iraq, has brought the same intensity to his three-decade diplomatic career, amassing a record of Middle East and South Asia experience possibly unrivaled in the United States Foreign Service. He has served as ambassador to Lebanon, Kuwait, Syria and, since 2004, Pakistan. He reopened the American Embassy in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. And he knows Iraq well; he worked there in the 1970s, led the State Department's Iraq-Kuwait task force during the Persian Gulf war in 1991 and returned to Baghdad for four months after the 2003 invasion as director of governance for the Coalition Provisional Authority. In confronting Iraq's sectarian mayhem and the baffling mix of religious, political and tribal interests, he will be able to draw on many years of immersion in trouble spots with similar problems, including Beirut, where he survived the embassy bombing in 1983. "He's an absolutely first-rate professional who will manage the job with skill and sensitivity," said Edward S. Walker Jr., president of the Middle East Institute and a former American ambassador to Egypt and Israel. "He has the cultural understanding that's so important to working in that region and that country." Still, Mr. Walker said, the situation in Iraq is so intractable that it may prove impossible for any envoy to affect events decisively. "We're facing a division in Iraq that may be beyond anyone's capacity to heal," he said.

Assuming he is formally nominated and confirmed by the Senate, Mr. Crocker, 57, will succeed three men who had very different approaches to the job of top American representative in Baghdad. L. Paul Bremer III, who led the Coalition Provisional Authority, had little experience in the region and exercised control over emerging Iraqi leaders that critics found heavy-handed. John D. Negroponte, the first ambassador to the new government, took the opposite approach, encouraging Iraqis to take on responsibility and trying to remain in the background. Zalmay M. Khalilzad, who succeeded Mr. Negroponte, has taken a far stronger hand in pressing for reconciliation between the Shiite majority and the Sunni minority. Former colleagues say Mr. Crocker is likely to be a less public presence in the Iraqi capital than Mr. Khalilzad, though they say he will work assiduously behind the scenes for the political accommodation necessary to reverse the slide to civil war. They describe Mr. Crocker as a tough boss who drives himself as hard as he drives his staff. An accomplished marathon runner, he runs several miles early every morning, even in such danger spots as Beirut, where he was trailed by burly security guards who sometimes had to hop on bicycles to keep up.

Robin L. Raphel, a senior diplomat who worked with Mr. Crocker in Baghdad in 2003, said he was responsible for helping to put together the Iraqi Governing Council, the provisional government that oversaw the country for a year after the fall of Saddam Hussein. "He's a very good persuader and negotiator," Ms. Raphel said. "He has the background on a lot of the important figures in Iraq, and he's very good at sussing out who's who." A former colleague who agreed to speak of Mr. Crocker candidly on condition of anonymity called him "incredibly hard-working, very serious, a little introverted." "I'd say he's more respected than loved in the State Department," the colleague said, "but he certainly is respected. He's done the dirtiest, hardest assignments you can imagine." In Pakistan, Mr. Crocker has proved to be an "old school" ambassador who has put only limited pressure on President Pervez Musharraf, the military ruler who has sometimes frustrated the Bush administration by failing to act decisively against Al Qaeda and other militant groups, said Husain Haqqani, professor of international relations at Boston University. "He's not somebody who will come up with a new grand strategy to change the world," said Mr. Haqqani, a former Pakistani government official. "But attempts to craft grand strategy have caused a lot of upheaval in American diplomacy."

Born June 19, 1949, in Spokane, Wash., Ryan Clark Crocker grew up in an Air Force family and attended school in Morocco, Turkey and Canada, as well as the United States. He graduated from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., in 1971 and took his first Foreign Service assignment to the American Consulate in Khorramshahr, Iran, in 1972. He later worked in the embassies in Qatar, Iraq and Egypt. Because he prefers working overseas, he has rarely worked in Washington, but did hold a few posts there, including deputy assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs. He is married to Christine Barnes, a retired Foreign Service secretary, whom he met in Baghdad in 1979. Friends say they own property in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, where a friend said they discussed retiring before Mr. Crocker was named to his current post.

Now Mr. Crocker will face what is likely to be the most demanding assignment of his long career. "He's capable of doing the juggling act required in Iraq," Mr. Haqqani said. "Let's hope he does it well."

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