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Former Iraq ambassador feels halfway to ‘normalcy’

Ryan Crocker, former ambassador to Iraq, stands in front of the Spokane Valley home he is renting. Crocker's parents originally had the home built in 1949.  (J. Bart Rayniak / The Spokesman-Review)
Ryan Crocker, former ambassador to Iraq, stands in front of the Spokane Valley home he is renting. Crocker's parents originally had the home built in 1949. (J. Bart Rayniak / The Spokesman-Review)

In life, Ryan Crocker says, it is better to be lucky than good, and more important to have perseverance than hope.

That’s how he describes a career of daunting and often dangerous posts that included U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Afghanistan and ultimately Iraq, where he served until January.

Now the man who spent two years overseeing the troop surge in Iraq is trying not to make too many decisions too soon.

He and his wife Christine are renting the Spokane Valley house his parents built in 1949. They planted a garden and are planning to build the house they’ve been dreaming of for years, a prospect he jokes is more complicated than any assignment in the Middle East.

In an interview this week, Crocker said taking the post in Baghdad was the most difficult thing he’d been asked to do in a long career, and ultimately one of the most rewarding. But it didn’t appear promising when he was asked to go to Iraq in late 2006.

“It was not ‘Oh boy, this is the challenge of a lifetime,” Crocker said in a recent interview. “I thought ‘Dear God, why me? Can’t they come up with someone else?’ ”

They didn’t. Crocker delayed his planned retirement and went to Baghdad, where he was the civilian counterpart to military commander Gen. David Petraeus, and a target for critics of the administration’s policies in the public and in Congress.

U.S. Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., who met with Crocker in Iraq in May and August 2007, said the ambassador defended the troop surge as the right policy but was “absolutely straightforward” about how difficult the task would be. He knew the region, the language, the different religious, political groups and tribes.

“That kind of openness is incredibly rare,” Baird said Tuesday. “Crocker knew it inside and out.”

U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., recalled Crocker and Petraeus appearing before a packed committee hearing in 2007, filled with cameras and questions. “He didn’t get rattled at all,” McMorris Rodgers said. “He talked about the importance of building relationships and diplomacy.”

By the time Crocker left Baghdad, the surge was almost universally acknowledged as having at least contributed to stabilizing Iraq. He downplays his role, saying he was lucky to be in Iraq with good people, both Americans and Iraqis.

“Iraq in 2009 is in a better situation than it was at the beginning of 2007 when I got there,” Crocker said recently. “I’d be the last one to say we have ‘won.’ ”

Baird thinks Crocker deserves much of the credit, but doubts that he’d ever claim it because of a self-effacing attitude of doing a job well without drawing attention to himself.

In January, President George W. Bush awarded Crocker the Medal of Freedom, calling him America’s Lawrence of Arabia – a label the news media around the country have repeated in profiles and interviews, even though the comparison makes Crocker laugh.

“Whatever I am, I’m not Lawrence of Arabia. I do not see a major MGM picture being made about me any time soon,” he said.

Where’s Khorramshahr?

That Crocker was even in the Middle East for his diplomatic career was a matter of pure luck. Born in the Spokane Valley in 1949, his family traveled with his father, who was in the Air Force. He’d developed an interest in Muslim culture while living a year in Turkey, hitchhiked from Amsterdam to Calcutta during college and became interested in Iran and Afghanistan. When he applied for the Foreign Service, he listed Middle Eastern countries as preferred postings — and was assigned to Guatemala.

Two weeks into Spanish language training, however, he got a call saying a spot had opened up in Khorramshahr, and did he want it?

That would be great, he said, then hung up the phone and got out an atlas to figure out where that was. It was in Iran, near the Iraqi border; he switched from Spanish to Farsi. He arrived in Iran in 1972, where his travels around the country led him to believe the shah would fall, but incorrectly guess the country would be taken over by democratic-minded reformers rather than Islamic fundamentalists.

“It was a valuable lesson, to check your intellectual baggage at the door,” he said.

Halfway to ‘normalcy’

After living most of their adult lives overseas, he and Christine are about halfway to the “normalcy” of living in a place where it is relatively easy to find housing, get services and utilities, and drive across town or across the country without armed escort or regular stops at checkpoints. One of the most surprising things, he said, is “how easy it is, how well things work in America.”

Crocker makes speeches when asked, and each speech seems to lead to a new invitation. The venues range from West Point to the Leadership Spokane graduation at Mukogawa Fort Wright auditorium.

Asked to discuss what leadership is, he opted to start with what it isn’t: “It isn’t about you; it has to be about something greater. It isn’t about having all the answers; it’s about knowing who, where and when to ask.”

Leadership is often about “putting your head down and marching” when you want to hide in the closet with the light out, which is how he felt some days in Iraq and other Middle East hot spots.

“It’s perseverance in the face of adversity,” he said. “Perseverance does not require hope, but hope does require perseverance.”

Discouraged by lack of candidates

So what’s ahead for one of America’s top diplomats? Negotiating peace between the city of the Valley and Spokane County over police services and snow plowing?

With practiced years of diplomacy, Crocker allows that even he might not be able to fix that one. He has kept track of state and local politics during his years abroad, keeping his voter’s registration in Spokane and never missing a regular election.

He’s long been struck by what he calls “the liveliness of politics” in the Spokane area, but was surprised and a little discouraged that races for Spokane Valley City Council attracted so few candidates this year.

“I’ve served in countries where, when people agree to be candidates for office, they are literally risking their lives,” he said.

He “absolutely” did not think of running himself.

“This area may need a lot of things, but one thing it doesn’t need is literally the most ignorant man on the block to step in from outside and pretend to say he knows how things should be ordered,” Crocker said.

Asked if that could change in a few years, Crocker offers a more diplomatic maybe: “Who knows? That would fall under that category of longer term commitments that I’m in no way ready to make.”

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