Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Parting Words from a Career Diplomat ; as Mideast Expert Steps Down, He Cautions U.S. on Foreign Intervention

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Parting Words from a Career Diplomat ; as Mideast Expert Steps Down, He Cautions U.S. on Foreign Intervention

Article excerpt

Ryan C. Crocker, retiring for health reasons at age 63, sees, if anything, an increasingly fraught foreign landscape in a world set afire by war and revolution, a stage bound to frustrate the United States' best intentions or strategies.

Just days from his retirement, the diplomat most associated with the United States' major military interventions since 2001 has a few words of warning for those in Washington contemplating future foreign involvement, whether in Syria or Iran or anywhere else.

"It's not just that we don't know enough about a particular country in which we propose intervention, it's that we can't know enough," said the diplomat, Ryan C. Crocker, who even as he retires for health reasons at age 63 cannot help keeping his mind at work on the crisis spots that have defined his career: in Pakistan and Egypt, Iran and Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.

Mr. Crocker, a wiry, intense man who for years was a dedicated distance runner, is retiring as ambassador to Afghanistan at the end of July after a career that began as the last U.S. troops were leaving Vietnam and is ending as the curtain falls on an era of U.S. state-building that has mostly fallen short of the results policy makers had hoped for.

In Iraq, the dream of a peaceful and democratic ally in the Arab world is giving way to a renewal of violence and an authoritarian government that lists toward Iran. In Afghanistan, the future is uncertain and hangs on dozens of "ifs": if the elections are fair enough, if the Afghan security forces can fight off insurgents, if the government can become self-sufficient.

In the years ahead, Mr. Crocker sees, if anything, an increasingly fraught foreign landscape in a world set afire by war and revolution, a stage bound to frustrate the United States' best intentions or strategies. Although he has spent a lifetime immersed in the Arab world and is a fluent Arabic speaker, as well as spending years in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Mr. Crocker is deeply skeptical that Americans on foreign soil can be anything other than strangers in a strange land.

"We're a superpower," he said. "We don't fight on our territory, but that means you are in somebody else's stadium, playing by somebody else's ground rules, and you have to understand the environment, the history, the politics of the country you wish to intervene in. And you have to think of not only second- and third- order consequences, but realize you're going to be dealing with 30th- , 40th-order consequences that you can't even begin to imagine."

Although Mr. Crocker has sometimes presented the glass as half- full when assessing the situation in foreign countries, fellow diplomats say that his private analysis tends to be stark and unromantic, a vision shaped by his 38 years of experience in which he repeatedly confronted the limits of U.S. power and the hostility of many to what it stands for.

In 1983, while a political attache in Lebanon, he was in his office when a delivery truck loaded with explosives slammed into the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, killing 64 people, including 17 Americans. He was one of the first on the scene to walk through the smoldering wreckage, looking for colleagues.

His residence was attacked while he was ambassador to Syria in 1998. Though he was away, his wife, Christine, was in the house.

She has almost always traveled with him, even to war zones, and accompanied him to Baghdad despite the dangers. But she has not been with him in Afghanistan.

Most recently in Kabul, Mr. Crocker was in the embassy when it came under siege by suicide bombers armed with rockets who positioned themselves in an unfinished apartment building and shot at the embassy in an attack that lasted 19 hours.

With all that in mind, Mr. Crocker, who has a wry sense of humor, is generally leery of predictions in chaotic situations. …

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