The below conversation between Amb. Ryan Crocker and Steve Inskeep was held at the Middle East Institute's 66th Annual Banquet in Washington, DC on November 13, 2012
Amb. Wendy Chamberlin: Now it gives me very great pleasure to introduce and welcome a voice that any of you who commute by car in the morning knows quite well, Steve Inskeep. He is host of the NPR Morning Show, which I’d like to point out is the most-heard radio news program in the United States. Steve is a lot more than just an evocative interviewer; he is also an accomplished writer. As someone who knows Pakistan, as I do, his new book, Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi, is well worth reading.
Steve will interview one of the American Foreign Service’s most esteemed and highly accomplished ambassadors, Ryan Crocker. Ryan, you should really take heart at all the colleagues, protégés and mentors that have joined us this evening from NEA, which we affectionately call the “mother bureau.” They have come here tonight not only to pay tribute to our awardees but to be with you again, Ryan. You have moved clear across country but you have come back here for this event. It gives all of us one more evening, one more time to share with you.
My first assignment in the NEA bureau – I hate to tell you how long ago, in the early 1980s – I joined a club of young officers who revered Ryan Crocker as one of our heroes, as one of the best and most fearless political reporters operating in the field. Throughout his career we had our career, and we were riveted by his reporting. We were riveted by his account of the horrific massacre at Sabra and Shatila, where he was the first international diplomat on the scene that cold and chilly morning in 1982 in Beirut. As ambassador to Syria from 1998 to 2001, Ryan’s incisive reporting on Bashar al-Assad offered a cautionary and clearly prescient warning that the son was cut from the same cloth as his father. When the winds of war were howling at the Pentagon and the White House in late 2002, Ryan’s memo warning of the consequences that we would face from any unilateral attack in Iraq is now immortalized as the “perfect storm” memo.
Over forty years of service to his nation as a diplomat, Ryan’s reporting has been respected for three qualities: it was fearless, it was impactful and it was intellectually honest. I have to be fair with you: there were occasions where I personally witnessed Ryan being a little bit dodgy with the truth. These were the times, Ryan, when Washington was trying to get you to leave your beloved field in the Middle East and come back to Washington and work in the bureaucracy. Ryan would say anything, he would do anything, to avoid coming back to the bureaucracy. Also a reason why he won our respect.
Ryan was accompanied by his wonderful wife, Christine, who unfortunately is not with us tonight. She was with him as he represented our country as ambassador in six different places, all of them in the news today: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait and Lebanon. He will have a great deal to say tonight. Steve is the guy to get him to say it. Please welcome Steve and Ryan. Thank you.
Steve Inskeep: Thank you very much, Ambassador. I hope it’s appropriate to follow up on something that you said, because you said you wanted to honor those who have served overseas. I’m sitting with someone who has served in numerous warazones, has been under fire more than once. Many of us do remember Ambassador Stevens. Just on Sunday, I was spending a little bit of time with American veterans bringing themselves back slowly from PTSD. So I hope all of us can join Ambassador Chamberlin in thanking those who have served overseas. Thank you.
I heard a little story about you, Ambassador Crocker. I really want it to be true. In fact, I’m afraid to ask, because I’m afraid you’ll say it’s not. The story is that when you were in government service during the Bush administration, that the president had a nickname for you. Is this true?
Ryan Crocker: Steve, it is true.
Steve Inskeep: And the nickname was?
Ryan Crocker: Sunshine.
Steve Inskeep: How did you get that nickname?
Ryan Crocker: When I got to Iraq in March 2007, it was the worst of times. The civil war was raging, the government was incoherent, it was unclear whether the surge would have an impact. It was the president’s pattern to have a weekly National Security Council meeting, into which David Petraeus and I were beamed by video. The president always started by asking us for our assessments: political on my side, military on his. My first week, looking at what we had on the ground, looking at the government we were working with, I said, “Well, Mr. President, I’d like to start with the good news, which is the embassy still stands. Now for the rest of the news. The government with which we are dealing does not meet any known criterion for a government. So I’ve got to figure out how to proceed from there.” The second week I continued pretty much in the same vein, and the third week he said, “Okay, sunshine, what do you have for us this time?”
Steve Inskeep: So you were a bearer of bad news. Or at least, honest news.
Ryan Crocker: Yes, I didn’t think I was doing the nation or the administration any favors by gilding a lily under those circumstances. My good friend Zalmay Khalilzad is not here today – he remains my good friend. The other thing you do when you move into a new position is make your predecessor look as bad as possible so that anything good that happens thereafter you can take credit for.
Steve Inskeep: Okay, well I’m not actually going to call you Sunshine during this interview, Ambassador, but I want to turn attention to Afghanistan and ask you as an occasional bearer of bad news, how bad is it?
Ryan Crocker: It actually has a lot of positive aspects. I would mention just three briefly. One, the one we all focus on: the violence and the insurgency. The good news there is that through the surge, through the development of a larger and more capable set of Afghan security forces, the Taliban-led insurgents have been badly damaged. They no longer meet allied or Afghan forces sort of force-on-force, they have been hurt too badly. They have moved to high-profile suicide attacks – that hasn’t paid off for them either. They have gone to the so-called “green on blue” attacks, in which they infiltrate –
Steve Inskeep: Afghan soldiers or trainees killing Americans.
Ryan Crocker: Killing Americans. That, touch wood, has dropped precipitously in recent weeks, as we and the Afghan government have taken a number of measures to better vet and control that. They rely now on primarily improvised explosive devices – not command-detonated but dumb ones, pressure plates. They will kill kids on a school bus as readily as they will a military convoy. In so doing, A) they demonstrate a degree of weakness, but B) they increase the animosity felt for them by the Afghan population generally.
The second positive point, which is vastly underreported, has been the improvements in life for average Afghans. When I opened the embassy in Kabul after the fall of the Taliban, 900,000 students. Today, 8.4 million and 40 percent of them are girls. In the 11 years since the fall of the Taliban, life expectancy has risen 18 years, according to the World Health Organization, from 44 to 62. That’s in large part due to an international, US-led effort to build clinics but most importantly to train healthcare workers so that a substantial majority of Afghans are now within a two-hour walk of medical care. In even the most remote, rural areas we have seen infant and child mortality plummet and maternal mortality plummet. We have seen telecommunications go from a few thousand landlines when the Taliban ran the place to 17 million mobile sets.
Steve Inskeep: I’m just remembering being in northern Afghanistan in late 2001 and a gentleman attempted to make a phone call and dialed three digits. No one answered by the way, but go on. So it’s changed a little bit.
Ryan Crocker: Most importantly, there is a changing demographic. The twenty- and thirty-somethings who are coming of age in a post-Taliban era where they have access to free media, to an education system, to a university system – including an American University of Afghanistan – that is creating something Afghanistan has never had before, a wired-in generation who wants their country and their society to be something very different from that of their fathers and mothers. It will take them a while to get full purchase but the progress they have made has been totally extraordinary.
The third point is the architecture is in place for a long-term, stable, reasonably secure Afghanistan. It’s there bilaterally through a negotiation that I led, the process that resulted in the Strategic Partnership agreement signed by the two presidents, Obama and Karzai, in May in Kabul. It’s an agreement that carries out to 2024. It designates Afghanistan as a major non-NATO ally of the United States, the first country so designated in seven years. It tells the Afghans, their friends and their foes that we are not going to do what we did after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. We are not leaving.
Steve Inskeep: It says that, but I can look at data points. I can open my paper in the last day or so and read a dispatch from Herat, in western Afghanistan – and I’m sure you saw this – Ismail Khan, who was at one time the warlord, the ruler of Herat in effect, has said he is reassembling his armed forces because he does not have confidence in the central government to provide security in the long term. He says he’s not against the central government, he insists that, but he’s reassembling this armed force. Are you sure that Afghanistan has changed enough that it will not go back to the chaos of the 1990s?
Ryan Crocker: What I know about the broader Middle East I learned from Ambassador Murphy. All the mistakes I made and the erroneous impressions I hold of course are his fault. I just want that very clearly established.
Steve Inskeep: Does Ambassador Murphy want to stand and take credit for those mistakes? Okay, fine.
Ryan Crocker: So I am certain of absolutely nothing. I talked about some of the signs of promise, the positive indications and directions, but nothing is guaranteed here. The single key event to watch is the elections in 2014. The prism through which I would read Ismail Khan’s latest actions are those elections. He is posturing himself to strengthen his influence and power base with the view to those elections, in the first instance, but it’s also his failsafe. Should things go badly wrong – for example, should a Pashtun president emerge who does not hold President Karzai’s very broad views of “we’re all Afghans together, whether we’re Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmen,” then he has a failsafe. But right now I think this is political signaling rather than an indication of the coming dissolution of the country or some decent into civil war. There is huge rejection of that.
My experience up until the time I left in the summer is that that is what everyone is doing: posturing. Ismail Khan has a lot of power but he does not lead the Afghan population; he does not lead the Tajik community. Mohammad Atta up in Balkh as governor has somewhat different views. So again, it’s going to be two tumultuous years, but I would read what he is doing is trying to position himself most advantageously for those elections.
Steve Inskeep: You mentioned President Karzai’s broad views. You have in some ways been supportive of President Karzai; you know very well that a lot of Americans in Washington are deeply, deeply skeptical – and perhaps not just in Washington – of President Karzai. Is he doing more harm than good?
Ryan Crocker: The first thing we need to remember, and not just in Afghanistan, is as we learned the hard way in Vietnam with Diem, it is really best if the United States refrains from making or breaking leaders of other people’s countries. He is Afghanistan’s president. He will be Afghanistan’s president until spring of 2014. We have to find ways to work with him. He has a long list of grievances vis-à-vis how the United States has comported itself over the last number of years – some not at all without merit.
I was given two missions by the president when I went out to Afghanistan. One was to reset the relationship with President Karzai, because President Obama understood: this is the president of Afghanistan. I worked hard to do that. I had the benefit of having been with him at the beginning, when he came up from Bonn. The other was to negotiate the long-term strategic frameworks that we could use to ensure a partnership that will last well beyond 2014. I think we made progress on both.
Again, knowing history in Afghanistan and knowing how Karzai perceives that history, how his predecessors have had to balance internal threats and factions as well as balance external interventions to get the necessary assistance, while avoiding being perceived as puppets – we have to understand that and we have to understand that sovereignty in Afghanistan, as it was and is in Iraq, is an ongoing, accelerating progress. We have to give way. That is what I think we effectively did in our agreements.
Steve Inskeep: Avoid being seen as a puppet – meaning, you think for political reasons he has to denounce the United States, he has to block the United States from time to time, he has to make what may be perceived as anti-American statements or not be terribly supportive when something happens like the video mocking the Prophet Muhammad. The political situation in Afghanistan is such that he must do those things.
Ryan Crocker: I think he’s got to carefully measure opinion and reaction. Since the time of Ahmad Shah Abdullah in the 18th century, the primary imperative of an Afghan leader who rules from Kabul is pretty simple: stay alive. It hasn’t changed up until the time of Hamid Karzai. We went through a lengthy period, that of course just happened to coincide with my tenure, in which President Karzai was quite tempered and measured in what he said publicly about the United States. That was because in part we were trying to convey to him: we get it. We understand your concerns about night operations and the huge sensitivity on the part of Afghans of US forces entering and searching Afghan homes. This gets at one of the most basic concepts of honor in Afghan society. We said: we get it. Let’s negotiate some memoranda of understanding that make it clear that you’re going to lead, your guys are going in. We will be there, we’ll drive the bus, the helicopter, we’ll maintain the inner cordon but we’re not going to search, you’re going to do it. We’re going to hand detentions over to you – another visceral issue in the Afghan concept of honor. I think by demonstrating that we understood these things, we made it possible to get that long-term strategic partnership, because he believed in it.
Also I think we were able to lower the temperature of the relationship. In the case of the Quran burnings in the spring out at Baghram, it was Afghan forces under Karzai’s leadership that stepped forward to defend life and property, including international and American life and property, because our forces clearly could not be seen. Yet among his orders were keep demonstrators away from foreign installations; don’t let them get close.
So is it a perfect relationship? No relationship is. Is it a workable one? Yes, very much.
Steve Inskeep: I can’t leave this subject without asking you about the scandal of the last few days, which as everyone in this room knows affects two generals with whom you have worked very closely over the years: General Petraeus and General Allen. My first question is, do you think this will have any practical effect on the ground in Afghanistan?
Ryan Crocker: In a word: no. I would say more broadly, all I know is what I am reading in the newspapers – which, as is always the case, if I’m reading it in a newspaper instead of listening to NPR as I should, is highly confusing. I soldiered for almost two years with General Petraeus in Iraq and for over a year with General Allen in Afghanistan. There are no two finer men who have worn the uniform of United States forces than those two men.
Steve Inskeep: What are your thoughts on General Petraeus’ career ending the way that it has now ended?
Ryan Crocker: Again, we have to see how all this unfolds. I think that he dealt with this latest incident as he has dealt with issues throughout his career: with honesty, with dignity and with honor.
Steve Inskeep: I want to ask also, in the time that we have, about Libya. There are many directions we could take this discussion. Let me for purposes of this discussion, however, set aside the debate over what happened after the attack on the consulate in Benghazi –
Ryan Crocker: Thank you.
Steve Inskeep: -- with which everyone I’m sure is familiar here. But I’d like to ask one question about what happened before. As a diplomat with the experience that you have had, knowing whatever you may know about this incident, was security sufficient at the consulate in Benghazi at that time?
Ryan Crocker: Many would point to the fact that we lost an ambassador and three other Americans as prima facie evidence that it wasn’t. But we are working in a very uncertain region at a very uncertain time. No one knew this better than my friend and colleague Chris Stevens. As Wendy alluded, we in NEA are a pretty small tribe. We all felt his loss. I knew him since he joined the department in 1991. I also know that there was no American diplomat who understood Libya better than Chris did – more than two years on the ground. He knew the dangers, he knew the risks. He knew the importance of Benghazi as the center of the revolution. He did not take unnecessary chances; he and his security advisors thought they had enough in place to keep him safe. But in the Middle East what you don’t know is often greatly heavier in weight than what you do. What we didn’t know was how well Al Qaeda was organized, ready and waiting. We didn’t know it. Was that an intelligence failure? I wouldn’t say so. Tracking Al Qaeda is pretty tough stuff and of course they have lost a lot more of them than we have lost of us as a result of their efforts.
Are there lessons to be learned? There are. One of the lessons I hope we don’t think we learned is let’s retrench, let’s have fewer engagements, let’s go out less, let’s do less, let’s know less. That would be a horrible way to acknowledge Chris’ sacrifice.
Steve Inskeep: Are you saying that a lesson for a layman like me is that diplomacy is a risk? That if you’re doing it properly, as he seemed to do it, you need to be prepared to take risks and we need to be prepared for the occasional loss of a life.
Ryan Crocker: Steve, that’s exactly what I’m saying. It’s as true for journalists as it is for the rest of us. The chances that you personally have taken, as well as your colleagues – and the losses – testify just to that. Look, we are the Foreign Service. Foreign because 75-80 percent of us are deployed abroad on any given day. The Marines consider themselves expeditionary – we are far more expeditionary than they are. We’re supposed to be. And we’re a service, just as our brothers and sisters who wear the uniform of the United States – indeed, we swear the same oath that they do, to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. That doesn’t mean in the cafés of Paris and the patisseries of Belgium.
Steve Inskeep: Although they’re nice.
Ryan Crocker: Very nice. Paris is a great place to change planes when you’re going somewhere where it really counts.
Steve Inskeep: Anyone who may be French here, no offense intended.
Ryan Crocker: So yes, we have to be prepared to go to dangerous places, do difficult things. That’s what Chris Stevens was doing to understand and influence the new ascendancy in Libya. If you don’t deal with them, you’re not going to affect their behavior or even know what their agenda is.
I would like to see us find ways to get diplomats – or more diplomats; I’m not saying there are any – into Syria. We’re not going to understand what’s going on with the Syrian opposition if we don’t have our own people on the ground. Yes, we will lose some. That’s a tragedy. It’s a tragedy when we lose every single service member. I went to dozens and dozens of ramp ceremonies, as I saw our dead American service members go home from Afghanistan for the last time. There’s nothing that makes us immune to that risk, and if we’re doing our jobs right we’re going to run that risk.
I was an ambassador six times. In three of those posts, a predecessor was assassinated. It’s not new. It’s part of the cost of doing America’s business. America I think is ready to accept that, the American people are ready to accept that. I simply hope that we don’t take the position after Chris’ assassination that we shouldn’t expose our people to danger. We need to do it.
Steve Inskeep: Did the kind of security that was essential in Afghanistan and Pakistan, considerably more extensive than exists in Libya or has existed in Libya, make it hard for you to do your job at all?
Ryan Crocker: Again, we’ve gotten better at a lot of things over time, including how we do security. The quality of our diplomatic security cadre has improved immensely over the years. We have language-speaking diplomatic security officers, senior regional security officers who have served in the region, know the place, know the players, know the language. They are in the business of risk management, not risk avoidance. The trick is not to treat them as an obstacle somehow to be overcome but as a partner to help you perform an essential mission and get back safely. A good dialogue between senior embassy leadership and the senior security officer is crucial, both to the safety of diplomats and the execution of the mission. But I have worked with some of the best, and I have found in every case – whether it’s in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq – that regional security officers are dedicated to getting your job done and bringing you back alive, recognizing that there is risk inherent.
Steve Inskeep: Let me ask you a question about Pakistan, since you mentioned it.
Ryan Crocker: Well, you wrote the book – I should be asking you.
Steve Inskeep: The whole point of the book was to listen to people, so I’m going to continue listening, thank you. As Americans know well, billions of dollars in non-military aid is being directed at Pakistan. Some of it is being spent, some of it is waiting to be spent. A considerable amount of it is spent without high-profile involvement of the United States government. Things just happen – hopefully they happen and people may be told that they are being done by the Pakistani government. I understand why that is: you want to support the Pakistani government. But this is my question: couldn’t you lay out the hypothesis that the opposite is happening? That we, the United States, with our billions of dollars, are enabling an incompetent government and getting no credit for whatever it is we do spend?
Ryan Crocker: First, remember some recent history. We’ve managed our relationship with Pakistan in a variety of different ways. We’ve tried sanctions, after the withdrawal of the Soviets. That didn’t work so well for us: it paved the road to 9/11 and has created a profound and enduring distrust among Pakistanis concerning our reliability as an ally. In terms of our assistance, I would therefore suggest, it’s important for us to continue it, to have certain expectations but not to have any “or elses,” because it simply harks back to the days of the Presser Amendment and total sanctions.
How we administer it, I firmly believe, on the civilian side should be in a manner that strengthens institutions in Pakistan as well as bringing good things to the Pakistani people. How we take credit for it – I think in an intelligent fashion and in partnership. During the time I was there was the awful 2005 Kashmir earthquake that killed 80,000 Pakistanis in two minutes. We mounted the largest and longest sustained airborne relief effort since the Berlin airlift and we did so very visibly, with American flag decals on the sides of CH-47 Chinook helicopters. The Pakistanis knew it was the Americans who were doing this and at no time was our popularity greater than at that time. We were also very careful to coordinate everything we did with the Pakistani government, civilian and military, so they got credit as well. I think there is a way to blend these two. We don’t want to be invisible – I don’t think it serves our interests or Pakistan’s interests – nor do we want to be seen as the sole benefactor and were it not for us an inept government would produce nothing. So it’s a combination of the two.
Steve Inskeep: Counterintuitive question but: does it matter if the money is wasted? Is it important to spend it wisely or just to spend it?
Ryan Crocker: Clearly it’s important to spend it as wisely as possible, bearing in mind that in states such as Pakistan, if you’re going to achieve those political objectives – which is developing institutions and giving institutions responsibility – you’re going to give up some control and accountability. You just have to find what the right balance for that is.
Steve Inskeep: Give up some accountability – meaning you have to accept that some of it will be wasted and that’s just the way it is?
Ryan Crocker: We have got the most dedicated, sophisticated and numerous sets of inspectors general that modern history has ever seen. Special inspector generals, USAID inspector generals, State inspector generals, DOD inspector generals, the GAO and on we go. They keep a pretty tight eye on this. Yet I have found, talking to senior inspectors, that they understand that if this is to succeed, it can’t simply be a bean-counting effort. It has to produce a policy result. I would equate this to what I just said about security. Good inspectors general – and we’ve got some very good ones now – understand that we’re spending money to achieve a political goal. That means dealing with those funds in a way that might not be the way you deal with relief for Hurricane Sandy. It doesn’t mean you waste it or that you turn a blind eye, but that there is more to this than simply accounting for every penny. You’re developing institutions and you’re developing relations. Again, you’ve got to balance the two.
Steve Inskeep: Two questions and then I will let people get back to their conversations. First, I wanted to follow up on something. You alluded to your hope that there would be people on the ground in Syria, without regard to whether there may be now, but you hoped that there would be. Do you favor a broader US intervention in Syria?
Ryan Crocker: Again, I’ve learned a very few things in my long career. One of them is be careful what you get into. You’ve got to understand the dynamics of the Syrian rebellion. Who are those guys? What do they stand for? Who’s behind them? Who’s against them? Pretty hard to do that from long distance. I think you’ve got to be on the ground, as we have been in Libya, both analyzing and influencing. I’m not sure we know enough – and I have to say, after the Doha conference, I’m not exactly reassured that we have a clear address to pursue a policy of coordinated, cohesive and effective assistance. Humanitarian, yes, by all means. But if we’re considering going beyond that, we need to know a lot more than we do, in my view, before we make those decisions.
Steve Inskeep: So could be the right thing but we don’t have the information.
Ryan Crocker: That’s my sense of it. Think of Afghanistan. We were out to defeat the Soviets by any means possible. We’d arm anybody who would use those arms against the Soviets. Again, we helped therefore create not only the vicious Afghan civil war but also the Taliban and ultimately Al Qaeda.
Steve Inskeep: That maybe leads to the final question. I was thinking of something that Abraham Lincoln once wrote in a letter, and I’ll have to paraphrase it here. He said something to the effect of: I confess plainly that I have not controlled events, but that events have controlled me. Let me ask that about the Middle East and the broader region. Are we, as the United States, in any way in control of events or are events in control of us?
Ryan Crocker: I would rephrase that slightly, with all due respect both to President Lincoln and to NPR. What is the region in control of? What do regional partners think? What is their analysis? What are their recommendations? This is the most tumultuous time in the Middle East in sixty years, since the revolutions of the 1950s, yet it’s the mirror image of those revolutions, when the monarchies fell to the new republican forces (so-called). This time around it is those republics of the 1950s who are giving way to yet new revolutionary forces while the monarchies are holding pretty firm and fast. Why don’t we have a conversation? How do they think we should proceed? What do they think is happening and why? Because ultimately it’s not for us to follow the British and French model of seeking to control events in the Middle East. It is for us to understand what is developing in the Middle East, to identify those forces that are seeking stability and security who will broadly align with our interests, if not serve as our allies – because that can be dangerous too, to them and to us – and then to act on that basis. But for us to think that we are the ones that should decide how events should go and how we can direct and control them is in a very important sense a form of neo-imperialism that will bring us no good, nor any good to the region.
Steve Inskeep: You got home just in time for a very exciting election. Perhaps you heard something about it.
Ryan Crocker: I understand there was one.
Steve Inskeep: You got to hear some of our national political debate on this side. Did you sense when you got home that people understood that complexity that you just laid out?
Ryan Crocker: Since the whole broad range of foreign policy issues was largely absent from the campaign, including the debates – including the debate on foreign policy –
Steve Inskeep: The economy is a national security issue, sir. No, sorry, please, go ahead.
Ryan Crocker: If the candidates and campaigns are not dealing with these issues in a detailed and forthright way, it’s a little hard to expect the American population to have a nuanced grasp of what’s at stake here.
Steve Inskeep: Ambassador, thank you for your nuanced grasp of the issues. Thanks for this discussion.
Ryan Crocker: Thank you.