Congress' Benghazi Probe Could Send Wrong Message

Ryan Crocker was formerly a U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, Kuwait, Syria, as well as Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. He worries diplomats will be pressured to avoid risks, and retreat from doing their jobs. He spoke with Steve Inskeep before a large audience of diplomats and others at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Something about that Benghazi investigation bothers former U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker. He is concerned the political probe will pressure U.S. diplomats to avoid risk, and retreat from doing their jobs.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Croker says diplomats must act like reporters, understanding the countries where they work; which is hard to do in the places where Crocker served as U.S. ambassador, including Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The career diplomat spoke about this, with me, on stage. We were at a conference of the Middle East Institute in Washington, before a live audience containing many current and former diplomats.

Was security sufficient at the consulate in Benghazi, at that time?

RYAN CROCKER: Well, many would point to the fact that we lost an ambassador, and three other Americans, as 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. I knew him since he joined the department in '91. I also know that there was no American diplomat who understood Libya better than Chris did, more than two years on the ground; that he knew the dangers, that he knew the risks, that he did not take unnecessary chances, that he and his security advisers thought that 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. And what we didn't know is how well al-Qaida was organized, ready and waiting. We didn't know it. Is that an intelligence failure? I wouldn't say so. Tracking al-Qaida 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 re-trench. 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's sacrifice.

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?

CROCKER: Steve, that's exactly what I'm saying. Look, we're the Foreign Service - foreign because 75 to 80 percent of us are deployed abroad, any given day. 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 cafes of Paris, and the patisseries of Belgium.

INSKEEP: Although they're nice.

CROCKER: Very nice. Paris is a great place to change planes ...

(AUDIENCE LAUGHTER)

CROCKER: CROCKER: ...when you're going somewhere, where it really counts.

(AUDIENCE LAUGHTER)

CROCKER: So yes, we have to be prepared to go to dangerous places, do difficult things. That's what Chris Stevens was doing. I would like to see us find ways to get diplomats 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. And yes, we'll 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. Well, 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. And I simply hope that we don't take the position, after Chris's assassination, that gee, we shouldn't expose our people to danger. We need to do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Ryan Crocker spoke earlier this week, at a banquet held by the Middle East Institute in Washington. He served as ambassador to Pakistan and Ira,q under President Bush; and ambassador to Afghanistan, under President Obama.

WERTHEIMER: Since Ambassador Stevens' death, Libya has gone through many tense weeks. This month, rival militias battled in the Libyan capital, Tripoli. Protesters tried to swarm the Libyan Congress building.

INSKEEP: But yesterday came a sign of progress. An elected government was sworn in - 20 members of the new Libyan Cabinet took their posts. There was also a sign of how far Libya has to go. Seven Cabinet positions remain to be filled, with concerns being raised about the links some candidates may have to the deposed regime of Moammar Gadhafi.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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