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Back in Valley, Crocker reflects on diplomacy’s lessons

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

Those lessons are among those he’s learned in 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 his post in Baghdad was the most difficult of his long career, and ultimately one of the most rewarding. He was asked to go to Iraq in late 2006.

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

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

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. “That kind of openness is incredibly rare,” Baird said Tuesday.

Crocker knew the region, the language, the various religious, political groups and tribes, Baird said. “Crocker knew it inside and out.”

U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., recalled an appearance by Crocker and Petraeus 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 widely acknowledged as having at least helped to stabilize Iraq. Crocker 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,” he said. “I’d be the last one to say we have ‘won.’ ”

In January, President George W. Bush awarded Crocker the Medal of Freedom, calling him America’s Lawrence of Arabia – a label news media around the country have repeated in profiles and interviews. 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 landed in the Middle East was a matter of luck. He was born in the Spokane Valley in 1949, and his family traveled with his father, who was in the Air Force. He developed an interest in Muslim culture while living for a year in Turkey, hitchhiked from Amsterdam, Netherlands, to Calcutta, India, 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. 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 classes to Farsi. He arrived in Iran in 1972, where his travels around the country led him to believe the shah would fall but incorrectly predict 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.

Closer to ‘normalcy’

After living most of their adult lives overseas, he and Christine are adjusting to the “normalcy” of a place where it is relatively easy to find housing, get services and utilities, and drive across town or across 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 are as varied as the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to the Leadership Spokane graduation at the Mukogawa Fort Wright Institute’s auditorium.

Leadership, he said, “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 Spokane Valley and Spokane County over police services and snowplowing?

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 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 offered a diplomatic maybe.

“Who knows?” he said. “That would fall under that category of longer-term commitments that I’m in no way ready to make.”