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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

RYAN CROCKER: I thought, well, you know, it pays better than the Army, which I was also looking at. So let's see what it's like. I thought I'd take a two-year tour and, you know, reevaluate and maybe go on to something else. After every tour, I asked myself the same question: Is this what you want to do? Is there anything else you'd rather do? And for just about four decades, the answer was consistently no.

MARTIN: Ryan Crocker has served as U.S. ambassador to no fewer than six countries in the Muslim world. He grew up in a military family and he went to school in Morocco and Turkey, so it came naturally to him to spend his career in international high profile postings. His last two assignments were as high profile as it gets for a U.S. ambassador; serving in Afghanistan and before that in Iraq, from 2007 to 2009.

Both countries are in a fragile state. But in recent weeks, it's Iraq that has preoccupied Crocker, and for good reason. Earlier this month, the U.N. said that more than 1,000 people had been killed in violent incidents in Iraq, in the month of May alone. And just last week, a wave of attacks killed 70 people and injured dozens more.

I spoke with Crocker this past week about his life on the frontlines of American diplomacy. But we started with Iraq. In 2007, he called it a traumatized society and he says the same is true today.

Ambassador Ryan Crocker is this week's Sunday Conversation.

CROCKER: The kind of return to sectarian tension is born of mistrust among the different groups. That in turn is born of the terrible trauma that the country suffered under the Saddam years, in which all were victims - Kurds, Sunnis and Shia alike - to a, you know, a despotic and vicious tyrant. You simply don't come out of that experience as newborn Jeffersonian democrats.

MARTIN: How much of your job in these postings, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, was about tamping down expectations for your own government?

CROCKER: Yes, that was a big part of the job. You know, many in this country, in and out of government, felt, well, it's been, you know, four years, five years - over 10 years in the case of Afghanistan - why can't they get their act together? Why can't they be smoothly functioning, institutionalized democracies? Well, they can't, for all of the reasons I've just cited. And, you know, we would do well to look at our own history. You know, it took us 13 years to get from the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution, after we went down a dead-end road of Confederation.

They've got a lot more work to do and they're trying to do it in a lot less time. And while continuing to push them, I think we have to understand that.

MARTIN: It is often dangerous work. And you've had your fair share of close calls, I imagine. I would like to ask you about the bombing at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon. This was in 1983?

CROCKER: April 18, 1983, six months before the Marine barracks bombing.

MARTIN: This was your first posting in the conflict zone. Is that right?

CROCKER: It was.

MARTIN: What can you tell us about that day? Can you recount what you remember?

CROCKER: It was a normal day in Beirut. Beirut normality in 1983, of course, I define by gunfire. But at a distance one could consider safe until a few minutes past 1 P.M. in the afternoon, when the building blew. I thought that my office had been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade or a similar munition.

I was thrown across the room. The glass all came in; door came down and so forth. I was a little cut up but not badly hurt. And when I walked out of my room, starting down the corridor where another suite of offices should have been, I was looking straight out into the Mediterranean Sea and realized that the whole side of the building had been sheared off. At moments like that, contrary to what we might think, I think we're all pretty calm and collected- you have to be.

I went up to see if the ambassador and the deputy chief of mission were OK. Met them coming down the stairs. So at least I knew that I wasn't going to be in charge. And the rest of the day and the night, and the next day and the next night - after we had accounted for everyone and knew who was missing - I was on site at the embassy as we dug through the rubble, trying to find our dead comrades.

MARTIN: We should say 63 people died in that attack. It was the deadliest on a U.S. mission up to that point, and was one of the first by Islamic groups targeting the U.S. Was it one of those moments when you thought maybe I should be a professor in a nice ivy-clad institution back where this doesn't happen?

CROCKER: Actually, Rachel, it was one of those moments that told me I'd made the right career choice, and I was right where I was supposed to be.

MARTIN: Why was that?

CROCKER: Because this is where it counts. You are engaged against an enemy that is seeking to destroy what it can of the United States. And figuring that out and figuring out how to counter it, well, there's simply nothing more important.

MARTIN: When you left Iraq, you came back to the United States. You went to Texas to be the dean at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M. I imagine this was a big moment for you. You are letting this go, retiring from the Foreign Service after almost 37 years. And then you got a phone call; the administration asked you to go to Afghanistan as the U.S. ambassador.

CROCKER: And my response was - I'll say what I've said my whole career: I'll serve where and when asked.

MARTIN: I mean it is rather predictable, given your long experience, that you would say yes. When the president asks you to serve, you step up and you go. Did you have no pause? You're married to a woman who also was at the State Department for years and years. But did the two of you sit down and have a conversation about whether or not you were really up for this again?

CROCKER: Actually no. I simply said if, you know, that is what the president wants then I am prepared to serve.

MARTIN: What is it though about this region that has continued to draw you in?

CROCKER: You know, I like the unpredictability of it. I liked the vitality of it. Arab cities always have something going on - they never sleep. I liked the spontaneity. I like the family solidarity, that if you were invited to someone's home for dinner, there would be 20 family members around - it is kind of fun. And I like the way people of the region valued personal friendships and attachments. We tend to be a little more detached in the West, particularly professionally. We do business with people over the phone for years and we never meet them. Not so in the Arab world, and I found that quite attractive.

MARTIN: Is it hard to be home in some ways? I imagine there is always a transition when you come back to the United States, especially after serving in a combat zone. Is it tough?

CROCKER: One thing that was tough when I came back from Afghanistan, where, you know, again, we were in the middle of a war; lost a lot of service members. Coming back from that to a country that struck me not opposed to war, or the fight that I was in, but oblivious to it. What war? So to go from, you know, the middle of the fight in Afghanistan into a supermarket that has 27 brands of breakfast cereal, and where all the conversation is about the newest TV series, you know, it was a bit of a jolt.

But this is the greatest country on Earth and it's good to be home.

MARTIN: Ryan Crocker is a senior fellow at the Johnson Center for the Study of American Diplomacy at Yale. He wraps up there in a few weeks and goes back to Texas A&M, where he serves as the dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service.

Ambassador Crocker, thank you so much.

CROCKER: Thank you, Rachel.

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