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Longtime Middle East diplomat, Spokane native advises crowd to ‘ignore history at our own peril’

Former Ambassador to the Middle East Ryan Crocker speaks at a forum on the Middle East at the Jepson Center on Gonzaga University’s campus Thursday night. The event was sponsored by People for Effective Government. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Former Ambassador to the Middle East Ryan Crocker speaks at a forum on the Middle East at the Jepson Center on Gonzaga University’s campus Thursday night. The event was sponsored by People for Effective Government. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

With the U.S. embroiled in new tensions in the Middle East, a longtime U.S. diplomat and ambassador in the region was in Spokane Thursday night to remind his audience not to forget history before deciding what they think about the present.

“The rest of the world lives its history, and we ignore it at our own peril,” Spokane-native Ryan Crocker told about 100 people gathered at Gonzaga University to hear him speak.

The history of the Middle East is one Crocker lived for some four decades, while serving with the U.S. State Department and as ambassador to Syria, Pakistan, Lebanon, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan.

When looking at a recent attack on Saudi Arabian oil production, the bellicose actions of Iran and the United States’ wavering about how deeply to become involved, Crocker said it is important to look back decades to truly understand the source of the conflict – and how it might be resolved.

And he said it’s not only interested citizens who should pay closer attention to the past but also those with the power to make decisions about how the U.S. should proceed.

Crocker said current U.S. officials should study the history of attacking oil infrastructure in the region, noting that it’s a tacticthe U.S. has used before.

He also noted that the countries at the center of some of the conflicts, including Saudi Arabia and Iran, have long, complicated histories with the United States. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are countries the U.S. supported during the Nixon administration, he said, and those two countries are now in their own cold war, aiding smaller proxies across the region.

Crocker said the difficulties the U.S. and other foreign powers face fighting smaller nonstate actors like terrorist groups in the region are connected to the history of invasion by Western nations. The way smaller actors fight and retreat in Middle Eastern countries goes all the way back to when Napoleon Bonaparte first invaded Egypt in 1798, Crocker said.

European nations and the U.S. have far less “strategic patience” than groups like the Taliban, because the history of warfare and failed negotiations has proved that the U.S. and other countries will leave and that those groups will remain.

Crocker also criticized the Trump administration’s dealings with the Taliban and the U.S.’s potential withdrawal of Troops from Afghanistan. Crocker, who served in Afghanistan as an ambassador for several years, said it would have been “horrendous” if Trump met with the Taliban at Camp David within days of the anniversary of 9/11.

Crocker said when he was the ambassador to the country, he worked hard to support womens’ rights and give girls an opportunity to get an education. When the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan ended, there were no girls attending schools. In 2012, there were millions of children attending schools and more than a third of them were girls.

He said the U.S. encouraged women to own business and serve in government as well, but if U.S. officials continued to negotiate a deal with the Taliban and deligitimize Afghanistan’s government by not including it at the negotiating table, their efforts will likely unravel.

“I shouldn’t have done a damn thing, if they were going to cut them loose and see what happens to them,” Crocker said.

Crocker said American decisions about what to do in the Middle East typically boil down to choosing between order and disorder and that often the U.S. sides with countries that have governing policies it disagrees with, to avoid disorder.

While critical of some current policies and approaches, Crocker also noted some overarching lessons he’d learned in many years of foreign service, such as that “it can always get worse” and that leaders are usually choosing between “bad and worse” pathways when making decisions across the region.

The forum was one of several People for Effective Government, a local nonpartisan group, is hosting this fall.

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