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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

U.S. envoy talks about future for Iraq and himself

 (Brian Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

BAGHDAD – On a bright Sunday morning in March, Ambassador Ryan Crocker stepped out of a meeting with top embassy staff, adjusted his silk tie and greeted two visitors from his hometown under the rotunda of Saddam Hussein’s former palace.

Diplomats of his caliber – 37 years in the U.S. Foreign Service, ambassador postings to the world’s toughest countries and now America’s leading political problem-solver in Iraq – are typically known as masters of restraint and decorum. But Crocker’s grin can only be described as dumbfounded.

“Well, I never thought I’d stand here in the Republican Palace meeting The Spokesman-Review,” Crocker, a Spokane Valley native, said shaking his head and laughing.

In his jacket pocket, Crocker carried a preprinted hour-by-hour schedule of the day. Between meetings with the Iraqi vice president, British Air Marshal, Sen. Carl Levin, the Iraqi prime minister, top U.S. military commander Gen. David Petraeus and Republican presidential candidate John McCain, Crocker offered an hour to reflect on his first 12 months as ambassador. His comments were a preview to testimony he’ll give today alongside Petraeus on Capitol Hill on the situation in Iraq.

The invitation for an interview was also no doubt a reflection of Crocker’s desire to ease back into the Spokane community. Early next year, Crocker and his wife, Christine Barnes – a fellow career Foreign Service employee – intend to retire to their 13 acres in south Spokane Valley.

“I very much do consider myself a Spokanite. I haven’t been able to live there very much, but that has always been home. It’s always been my legal residence and I’ve voted in every election,” the 58-year-old Whitman College graduate said, moments after climbing a flight of marble stairs and punching in a code to enter the secured hallway leading to his office. Taped on the wall outside his door were Valentine cards from the 4-H Club of Renton, Wash.

As a “career ambassador,” Crocker is the diplomatic equivalent of a four-star general. He’s fluent in Arabic and Persian and has served as the nation’s top diplomat in Pakistan, Kuwait, Syria, Afghanistan and Lebanon. Not only have these assignments been devilishly difficult on a diplomatic level, but they’ve included a fair share of physical danger, including several hasty exits by helicopter. Still, nothing compares to the problems Crocker faces in Iraq.

The country has been ruined by five years of war and three decades of dictatorship under Saddam Hussein. Crocker also must take into account the situation back home, where the U.S. public is increasingly weary of the war’s continuing cost in both lives and treasure. More than 4,000 U.S. troops are dead, as are at least 82,000 Iraqi civilians, and the price tag so far is at least $600 billion.

Is it worth it? Should the United States stay? Crocker paused before addressing the questions. Ambassadors, like generals, can be skittish about wading into heavily politicized issues. But it’s clear he thinks it would be a grave mistake to withdraw before Iraq is standing on its feet again.

“Since we wouldn’t be coming back and everybody would know it, you would probably see an intensity to this conflict that we have not seen before, with, I think, a very real prospect of the neighbors being drawn into this: Iran, the Arabs, Turkey up in the north. A very brutal civil war could become a regional conflict. And all of that would be devastating for America’s own long-term interests in a stable region,” Crocker said. “Frankly, I think it would be devastating for just how we look at ourselves. Remember the impact that Rwanda had on Americans? We sat by. We didn’t intervene and more than a million people died. How would we think of ourselves if we had unchecked civil war in this country and it was perceived that the reason was we … simply decided we didn’t want to be here anymore? And we left and all hell breaks loose?”

Crocker made frequent references to his experiences in Lebanon in 1983, when the U.S. Marine Corps barracks and embassy were bombed. The U.S. pulled out of the country the following year, giving the impression to leaders of Syria and Iran, Crocker said, “the U.S. can be pushed out. … And we’re dealing with the consequences 25 years later.”

If the U.S. withdraws, Crocker predicts not only a flare-up of civil war in Iraq, but a strengthening of al-Qaida. “They’ve been badly hurt, but they’re a tenacious enemy,” he said.

Although Crocker supports staying in Iraq, he wasn’t a booster of the initial invasion. In 2002, he co-authored a then-secret report titled “The Perfect Storm” that warned of decades of stifled ethnic and sectarian conflicts being unleashed should the U.S. topple Iraq’s iron-fisted dictator. The storm continues to rage. But Crocker insisted that “at every level we are starting to see some significant steps forward.”

Reconciliation among religious sects is beginning to take place and members of minority Sunni and Kurdish sects are obtaining more posts in the Shiite-led Iraqi government, Crocker said. Parliament recently passed a law in an effort to bring about more fairness in the distribution of oil revenues. The economy is expected to grow by 7 percent this year, providing more jobs, according to estimates by the International Monetary Fund. The United Nations is increasing its presence and will help with upcoming provincial elections, as well as mediating disputes over internal boundaries. Iraqi society has also begun to turn against the insurgency.

Some analysts believe Iran is fanning the flames of the violence – both as retaliation for the war it fought with Iraq in the 1980s, as well as to forge deeper ties with fellow Shiite Muslims. But Crocker said it’s not as simple as that. Iraqi Shiites are Arabs, not Persians. They suffered some of the heaviest casualties in the fight against Iran.

Iraqis retain a deep national identity that can transcend tribal and religious divides, Crocker said. As the Iraqi army and police slowly assume a greater role in providing the secure conditions needed for schools, hospitals and businesses to reopen, citizens will start feeling some pride in their government, he said.

The next few months will be critical in this process. By July, when 20,000 U.S. troops from the recent surge are back home, Iraqi security forces are expected to take their place. “That’s a point where we really have to take very careful stock.” As Iraqis take more control, less will be required from the U.S. military, he explained. That’s the plan, anyway.

“Is this doable? The last year shows me pretty clearly that it is and that it is doable with lower force levels over time. Iraqis are doing a lot more for themselves, but they’re certainly not at the stage yet where they can take this all on without some significant U.S. assistance.”

Overall violence has dropped 60 percent since the start of the surge last year, according to the Pentagon. But high levels of violence have returned in recent weeks, including a series of mortar and rocket attacks aimed at Baghdad’s Green Zone, which is home to the embassy and top military staff. Crocker’s office window remains blocked.

Concrete bunkers are scattered around the embassy and warning sirens still send employees scurrying under desks.

Next month, Crocker and hundreds of embassy employees will be moving to a new, heavily fortified complex. The $592 million embassy is expected to be the biggest and costliest ever constructed by the U.S. Cranes still tower over the 104-acre site along the Tigris River – it’s also protected by a moatlike waterway reportedly dug as a waterskiing park for Saddam’s son, Uday.

The massive embassy no doubt reflects America’s long-term role in Iraq. An upcoming change in the White House, however, could bring a different approach to the military conflict. McCain is backing a stay-the-course policy more closely aligned with President Bush’s. Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama are pushing for continued reductions in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq.

Crocker plans to retire in January, just as the new president takes office.

Although he won’t have to wake up each morning trying to fix a broken country – Crocker rarely takes a day off and is happy to get six hours of sleep – it’s clear he thinks America can’t afford to turn its back on Iraq.

“If the region and world perceive that however long and hard and difficult it was, that at the end of the day Iraq has come to a place of sustainable security within a framework of institutionalized democracy, and that we saw them through to that point, then I think that the region and the world will look at us in a very different light, that we got it right at the end. There really hasn’t been anything like this since the Second World War. … Iraq and Afghanistan is going to be a defining challenge for us and for the world for the 21st century.”

With the world seemingly resting on his shoulders, Crocker hasn’t had a lot of time to think about retirement. He’s an avid runner and won’t likely be squandering his energy rocking a chair on his porch. No doubt there will be offers from academia, think tanks and private firms, not to mention possible political posts. Crocker doesn’t yet know what he’ll do. Fly fishing is in the cards. He’s also looking forward to taking off his tie and wearing jeans – the four pairs he hauled to Baghdad have seldom left the closet.

On his Spokane Valley acreage, he should also be able to crank up the hard rock and heavy metal music that colleagues say he enjoys. One embassy employee, who insisted on anonymity, said Crocker has provoked puzzled smiles with his ability to quote lyrics from the Rage Against The Machine and Nine Inch Nails.

Crocker and his wife expect to build a home on their property, but they don’t have any other immediate plans. Embassy spokesman Philip Reeker, who sat in on the interview, suggested Crocker add a Middle Eastern flair to the parcel: “How about date palms?”

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Crocker has spent four years living in the world’s darkest places: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. He said his next posting, to Spokane Valley, sounds better each day. But he knows the adjustment from war-torn Mesopotamia to Eastern Washington will offer its own challenges.

“Going back to America is going to take some time to unwind.”