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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Ryan Crocker: Following the flag around the world

By Ryan Crocker

A great quality of Spokane and the Inland Empire is the respect we have for military service. My father embodied this. He was born in Spokane, served in the Army Air Corps in World War II and went on to a career in the Air Force, including several tours at Fairchild. He retired to a house in the Valley that was also my childhood home. As I write, the Lilac Festival is underway with its annual Armed Forces Torchlight Parade, honoring our military.

I chose a different service, the Foreign Service of the United States. It was my home for almost 40 years. This month, we celebrate the 100th birthday of the modern Foreign Service. In 1924, Congress passed the Rogers Act, combining the Diplomatic and Consular Services, both bastions of political patronage, into a single, professional Foreign Service, entry into which is by competitive examination with promotion based on merit. We are a small service, just 14,000 people of whom 8,300 are Foreign Service generalist officers, otherwise known as diplomats (44% are women). That’s about the size of a carrier strike group. The Navy has 11 carrier strike groups. Diplomacy is cheaper than war: Total international affairs spending is less than 2% of the federal budget. As that great Eastern Washingtonian Jim Mattis once said to Congress, “If you don’t fully fund the State Department budget request, I will have to buy a lot more bullets.”

It is the most expeditionary of all the services – some 70% of us are deployed abroad on any given day – and we are truly global with embassies in 175 countries. It is a hard service, and a dangerous one. I saw colleagues die in the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in 1983. I was an ambassador six times, to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon. In three of those countries, a predecessor of mine as the American ambassador was killed in the line of duty. When I served as ambassador in Baghdad (2007-09) and Kabul (2011-12), it was those embassies that were the United States’ largest, not London and Paris.

Like our sisters and brothers in uniform, we are resolutely nonpartisan. I served three times as ambassador for Democratic administrations and three times for the Republicans. And always for the American people.

The Foreign Service has no higher calling than the protection of American citizens abroad. Days after my arrival in Beirut as ambassador to reopen our embassy, an American woman appeared at the gate with two small children. She said she had been held as a virtual hostage by her Lebanese in-laws, heard the embassy was back and decided to make a run for it. But she had not been able to get her elder son out. My security detail extracted the boy, and within 24 hours, mother and children were aboard a U.S. Army helicopter, heading to Cyprus and safety.

The messy, complicated post Cold War world requires close coordination between the realms of statecraft and military power, between diplomats and warriors. That has been a touchstone of my career, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As ambassador to Kuwait in the 1990s, I was involved in a complex orchestration of military capability and political resolve that deterred a second invasion of Kuwait by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein – sometimes our greatest victories come in the wars we didn’t have to fight.

Over the years, I have worked with all our military services, and hold them all in the highest regard. There is a special place in my heart for the Marines. Marines have guarded our embassies since the end of WWII, and in many countries, Marine guards are all that stand between an embassy and hostile forces outside. When I was ambassador to Syria in 1998, seven Marines beat back mob attacks on the embassy saving our flag and those who served it. It gave new meaning to the phrase “a few good men.”

I joined the Foreign Service after graduating college, down the road at Whitman College. I knew even then that I would find my way back to Spokane. As Jim Mattis put it in remarks here last month, Eastern Washington isn’t just where we live, it’s in our DNA. I always kept the connection. My mom, who grew up at the Hutton Settlement, died in Spokane while I was serving in Iraq. I’m back now, having followed the flag to some pretty tough places, an old diplomat among a lot of warriors. There is nowhere better.

Ryan Crocker lives in Spokane Valley. He holds the Distinguished Chair in Diplomacy and Security at RAND and is a member of the Afghanistan War Commission.