Senators Question Nominees to Iraqi, Afghan Posts

A Senate panel holds a confirmation hearing for two key positions: the U.S. ambassadors to Iraq and to Afghanistan. President Bush picked career foreign service officers for the jobs: Ryan Crocker and William Wood. Senators heaped praise on the two Thursday, calling them eminently qualified diplomats.

Ryan Crocker has served twice in Baghdad before — 28 years ago when he met his wife, and then again in the summer of 2003, when he was trying to help put together an Iraqi government. Crocker is currently the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan; he and his wife plan to go back to Islamabad until he's confirmed by the Senate.

Green Zone a New Hot Zone for Iraq Envoy Pick

Ryan Crocker, White House special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad  and Maj. Gen. David Kratzer i i

Ryan Crocker (right), arrives at the Tallil air base, north of Nasiriya, Iraq, with White House special envoy to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad (center), and U.S. Maj. Gen. David Kratzer (left) in 2003. Leila Gorchev-Pool/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Leila Gorchev-Pool/Getty Images
Ryan Crocker, White House special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad  and Maj. Gen. David Kratzer

Ryan Crocker (right), arrives at the Tallil air base, north of Nasiriya, Iraq, with White House special envoy to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad (center), and U.S. Maj. Gen. David Kratzer (left) in 2003.

Leila Gorchev-Pool/Getty Images
Ryan Crocker and Jay Garner

Ryan Crocker (left) and retired U.S. Gen. Jay Garner (center) gather to discuss post-war Iraq at the Tallil air base in April 2003. Leila Gorchev-Pool/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Leila Gorchev-Pool/Getty Images

Hazardous Duty

Former U.S. Ambassador and State Department official Beth Jones recalls Crocker's response to events in Beirut in 1982 and 1983: the bombing of the U.S. Embassy, the Sabra and Shatila refugee-camp massacres and the assassination of Lebanese president-elect Bashir Gemayel.

A U.S. Marine stands guard after the U.S. Embassy bombing in Beirut. i i

A U.S. Marine stands guard outside the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in 1983, after a bombing that left 64 people dead. Bettmann/Corbis hide caption

itoggle caption Bettmann/Corbis
A U.S. Marine stands guard after the U.S. Embassy bombing in Beirut.

A U.S. Marine stands guard outside the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in 1983, after a bombing that left 64 people dead.

Bettmann/Corbis

President Bush has chosen Ryan Crocker to be the next top U.S. diplomat in Iraq. The challenging post is in Baghdad's Green Zone — the fortressed compound that's under constant mortar attack. But this is business as usual for the current ambassador to Pakistan.

Crocker is someone who revels in doing "the dirty, hard, and dangerous jobs," says Richard Armitage, a former deputy secretary of state.

Like his military counterpart, Lt. Gen. David Petreaus, the new top general in Iraq, Crocker raised questions about the conduct of the war. Now, Crocker and Petreaus are being asked — perhaps too late — to correct it.

Despite the tall order, those who know Crocker say he and Petreaus are a perfect match. Former ambassador to Yemen Barbara Bodine described the two men as having "somewhat iconoclastic views" about the war in Iraq. Yet she was impressed to see them maintain personal integrity and professional objectivity. "That's fairly remarkable that we have two of those kinds of people going in," she says.

Crises in Beirut

Back in 1982, Crocker was a junior officer with the political section at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut when word came of a massacre — hundreds of civilians, including children, dead at two Palestinian refugee camps.

A year later, Crocker was in the American embassy in Beirut when it was bombed, leaving more than 60 Americans dead. Today he keeps a bloodied calendar in his office as a reminder of the attack.

Crocker served in Iran in the early 1970s and in Iraq just after Saddam Hussein came to power. He later served in Syria and Afghanistan and is currently the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan.

These posts have given him an expertise that few diplomats possess. Armitage describes Crocker as "one of our lead planners in the [State] Department for things Iraqi."

Problems Foretold

In late 2002, as the administration prepared for war, Crocker identified problems that would later come to pass. According to Armitage, Crocker wrote a memo identifying elements that would lead to trouble after an invasion of Iraq: lack of a homogeneous population, the sectarian strains, and the tribal nature of the society. Five years later, Armitage describes the memo as being "dead on the money."

Despite Crocker's pre-war concerns, his friend and colleague Barbara Bodine says the ambassador can't properly be called a "critic."

"He will give you his honest judgment," she says, but "if the policy decision goes the other way, he will then try to implement it in the very best way that is possible."

After the invasion, Crocker was posted in Baghdad, where he ran the Coalition Provisional Authority's political reconstruction team.

"He probably knew more about Arab world politics than anybody else in the Green Zone at that time," says Rajiv Chandrasekaran, who was then The Washington Post's Baghdad bureau chief. "But past experience was no guarantee of future performance in post-Saddam Iraq."

Early Mistakes

One of Crocker's missteps involved the creation of Iraq's first governing council. Seats were distributed along ethnic lines, with Shiites in the majority. Inside the Green Zone, that might have seemed fair. However, according to Chandrasekaran, many Iraqis identify the Shiite-majority governing council as one of the early mistakes that yielded today's sectarian tension.

Yet Chandrasekaran acknowledges that Crocker did not have the final say in many of the decisions:

"Though Ryan possessed a preeminent knowledge," Chandrasekaran says, "he did not possess a preeminent position of influence."

If they are confirmed, Crocker and Petreaus will be sent to fix the troubled post-war situation that they warned of four years ago. Bodine wonders where the United States might be today, had Crocker and Petreaus been appointed earlier in the war.

"It will be one of the inevitable speculations of history," she says.

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