A Statesman Bows Out

By Gelb, Leslie H. | Newsweek, September 10, 2012 | Go to article overview

A Statesman Bows Out


Gelb, Leslie H., Newsweek


Byline: Leslie H. Gelb

America's top diplomat on Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Taliban's weakness.

This may stun the Washington cognoscenti, but America's coolest head and most knowledgeable diplomat on Afghanistan believes the recent spate of Afghans killing NATO soldiers and firing on the top U.S. general's plane is a sign of increasing Taliban weakness. "A large number of the attacks are perpetrated by Taliban infiltrators and represent a progressive degradation of their ability to engage us in unit combat," argues recently retired ambassador Ryan Crocker, a career diplomat of 38 years. "They lost the ability to mount large-scale operations early in the NATO surge. Their fallback--high-profile suicide attacks--didn't work particularly well for them either, thanks to the excellent work of Afghan and international security forces." Then his final plea, which he surely knows will strike few responsive chords: "We need to maintain perspective. There are tens of thousands of interactions every day between Afghan and international forces without incident."

This positive assessment represents what the 63-year-old Crocker actually believes. In a wide-ranging exclusive interview with Newsweek, he does not mince words or play to the crowd (or to presidents). Agree with him or not, he knows what he's talking about when it comes to Afghanistan or practically any other country in the Middle East and South Asia. Crocker is a person of great courage and directness--traits that should make recent presidents and many of their top aides tremble at the thought that he just might write his memoirs.

He's been everywhere, done everything, diplomatically, time and again. As Ambassador Frank Wisner, the State Department's Middle East expert of his day, put it: "Ryan is the premier U.S. diplomat of his generation." George W. Bush called upon Crocker to be his ambassador to Baghdad when all was falling apart in Iraq in 2007. Barack Obama snatched him back from retirement in 2011 and dispatched him to lead the U.S. mission in Kabul and check the deterioration there. In his unequaled record of service, he also served as ambassador to Syria, Lebanon, Kuwait, and Pakistan, among other earlier posts in Iran, Afghanistan, and Egypt.

No diplomat matches him in direct experience in today's Middle East, which is why his musings about war and near-war slam like a hammer on the public debate. So many situations around the world could be termed "problems from hell" that it becomes difficult to parse out "which are vital national-security threats, and which are just messy?" he reflects. If it's a real threat, Crocker wants to know "What's our plan?" He's seen few plans. He's seen a deadly combination of inexperience and political pressure to "just do something," which has driven many an American politician to advocate for what he calls "ill-conceived military intervention abroad."

Crocker trusted the Bush administration's case that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. "Secretary of State Colin Powell believed it, and if he believed it, I was going to believe it too," he says. But Crocker didn't believe that was where the administration's analysis should stop. He tried to inject a voice of experience into the conversation, arguing for a full examination of the potential consequences of what he thought likely to be an unnecessary war. He then threw a thunderbolt: "Look, there may well have been WMDs in Iraq, but Saddam was not very likely to use them in an aggressive war that he initiated, because he had to know the consequences would be the loss of his regime. He may have been insane, but he was not stupid." With a wisdom often lacking in the White House, Crocker nailed the point: "Deterrence works when your opponent knows that, should he remain undeterred, he will perish."

Crocker says he communicated these thoughts to Powell, but to no avail. "My retrospective view is, by that time, Powell had become so marginalized by Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld--and probably by that point even the president--that whatever he was saying, and I never knew for sure, they certainly weren't listening. …

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