What's The Diplomatic Solution To The Latest Unrest?

The unrest in the Middle East and northern Africa has major implications for U.S. foreign policy. Ryan Crocker, who served as U.S. ambassador to Syria, Kuwait, and Lebanon, says the international community has denounced the violence in Libya. He tells Renee Montagne that steps beyond that are going to be difficult to implement. Crocker is now the dean at the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The turmoil in Libya and other Arab states is forcing the U.S. to rethink how it approaches a region that seems to be changing by the day. One diplomat who has long experience with conflict in the Middle East is Ryan Crocker. He was the man sent to Iraq, along with General David Petraeus, at the beginning of the American surge in troops that helped turn around that war. He was also posted to Lebanon during the violence of the early '80s. Ryan Crocker joined us to talk about what might be happening now.

Good morning.

Professor RYAN CROCKER (Dean, George Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Can we start with the country of the moment? And that's Libya, where Colonel Moammar Gadhafi has responded to protests with a level of violence not seen in either Egypt or Tunisia, or really any of the other countries in the region. Is there anything that the U.S. or the international community can or even should do at this moment?

Prof. CROCKER: The international community led by the United States has, of course, denounced the violence. Steps beyond that, quite frankly, are going to be difficult to implement. There has been some speculation on declaring a no-fly zone over Libya, to prevent Gadhafi from using his air power against his citizens, but, you know, that would take a decision at least from NATO.

MONTAGNE: Besides a no-fly zone, is there anything else? It just feels like there should be something else that could be done.

Prof. CROCKER: Well, if this goes on longer than a few days, I think we will have to contemplate further steps. Those could include sanctions. They could include a no-fly zone. But we've got to consider other issues, too. Certainly Europe does, because Libya is a major supplier of oil to Europe, and that's a factor in all of this, too.

MONTAGNE: It's been talked about since the uprising initially in Tunisia that the U.S. has supported the very dictators that are being overthrown, or at least rebelled against. How hard will that be to overcome?

Prof. CROCKER: You're absolutely right, Renee. It is a dilemma for the U.S., because a lot of the leaders of these nations, as you say, have been our friends and our allies. Take Saudi Arabia - a monarchy, although not an absolute one - for many years, certainly not a democracy, yet a staunch ally, whether it's in the war on terror or in being a reliable producer of oil.

We do have to proceed carefully. What I think we would hope to see is a much more rapid movement toward reform led by these existing governments to get out ahead of protests that may not yet have formed in a number of countries.

MONTAGNE: So you're considering that there are governments that have not been overthrown, that could hang on if they do the right thing.

Prof. CROCKER: I think that if they do the right thing or lay out a plan, we're not going to see very many revolutions or coups coming out of this current process. Gadhafi's days may be numbered. The Bahrainis have a huge issue on their hands, but beyond that, I think there is every possibility that a set of well-thought-through reform measures can put these regimes and their populations on a different and far more sustainable track.

MONTAGNE: You know, I wonder though for those countries like Egypt, there's reason to believe that as these regimes become more democratic, that they would not necessarily share America's foreign policy priorities.

Prof. CROCKER: Taking the one emerging democracy that I know the best in the Middle East - Iraq - you know, so far we've nurtured a pretty strong relationship with that country, even as our forces draw down considerably.

MONTAGNE: Since 9-11, and especially during the Bush administration, there was a lot of talk about basically exporting democracy, and certainly about encouraging democracy. How much difference do you think it would make that people in these countries have fought and died in an effort to get for themselves basic civil and human rights?

Prof. CROCKER: It's an important point. We were the instrument of regime change in Iraq and in Afghanistan. We were not in Tunisia, in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, wherever else there is current turmoil. People were out in the streets in Egypt and Tunisia for purely domestic reasons. They had had all they could take of no political space or freedom and absence of economic opportunity.

The real question is where they go. It's a great thing to overthrow a despot. It is a much harder thing to actually construct a working democracy based on the ideals that these young people brought to the streets.

MONTAGNE: Ambassador Crocker, thank you very much for joining us.

Prof. CROCKER: It was a pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Ryan Crocker is now the dean at the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.

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