RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

I'm Steve Inskeep.

If you wanted a sign of the perils of taking a top job in Iraq just check the news from Capitol Hill. Members of Congress sharply questioned Paul Bremer yesterday. He had to defend his policies and billions of dollars in spending as the one-time head of the U.S. occupation.

Ambassador PAUL BREMER (U.S. State Department): I acknowledge that I made mistakes and that with the benefit of hindsight I would have made some decisions differently. But on the whole I think we made great progress under some of the most difficult conditions imaginable.

INSKEEP: Now a man who once worked for Bremer is going back to Iraq to become what Bremer once was: the top U.S. civilian trying to improve a worsening situation.

MONTAGNE: And President Bush has chosen Ryan Crocker to be U.S. ambassador to Iraq. He's a man for whom such challenges are business as usual.

Mr. RICHARD ARMITAGE (Former Deputy Secretary of State): He's the best field man, I think, that we've got in the Foreign Service.

MONTAGNE: Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.

Mr. ARMITAGE: He's the closest thing we've got in the Foreign Service to a Special Forces person: someone who is always reveling in the dirty, hard and dangerous jobs.

MONTAGNE: Yesterday we profiled the new top general in Iraq, David Petraeus; today, his diplomatic counterpart. Both men have raised questions about the conduct of the war. Now they're being asked, perhaps too late, to correct it. And those who know Ryan Crocker well, like former Ambassador Barbara Bodine, say the two are a perfect match.

Ms. BARBARA BODINE (Former Ambassador to Yemen) : These are both people who have somewhat iconoclastic views about what we should be doing and how we should be doing it. That's fairly remarkable that we have two of those kinds of people going in.

MONTAGNE: Ryan Crocker has been going into tough spots for decades. Back in 1982 he 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.

Beth Jones was Crocker's contact back at the State Department.

Ms. BETH JONES (State Department Official): He was one of the first on the scene, and there was no cell phone, there was no Blackberry, there was no anything. So there were plenty of periods of time where we didn't know where he was or whether he was safe. And mind you, this was a horrific set of scenes that he was looking at. He went through all of it for me on the phone, but at the same time was working with the rescue workers and others, and the survivors, to try to help them sort out who was still alive, who needed urgent medical care and what else needed to be done.

MONTAGNE: A year later, still in Beirut, Ryan Crocker was at his desk when a vehicle filled with explosives drove into the embassy wall. The suicide attack left more than 60 Americans dead. Again, at the other end of the line in Washington, D.C., was Beth Jones.

Ms. JONES: He was blown across his office. I was in touch with him pretty quickly after that and then out of touch with him because he was down on the rubble, pulling people out of the rubble and trying to help us identify who had been hurt and who hadn't made it through.

MONTAGNE: That moment has stayed with him, says Barbara Bodine.

Ms. BODINE: He has, in his office, the cheap U.S. government calendar that was on his wall on that day and it still has the dirt and some blood on it from the bombing. And he keeps it in his office as a reminder.

MONTAGNE: Does he carry to new assignments what he learned in Beirut?

Ms. BODINE: I think he does. I think he is personally aware and mindful of what the cost is, that this is not a grand game, that these are people who are involved and affected by bad decisions by leaders on all sides.

MONTAGNE: Ryan Crocker has had time to develop that sensibility. He served in Iran in the early 1970s, in Iraq just after Saddam Hussein came to power, in Syria, in Afghanistan in 2002 and in Pakistan now, where he is U.S. ambassador. All of these posts have given him an expertise that few diplomats possess.

Mr. ARMITAGE: He was one of our lead planners in the Department for things Iraqi.

MONTAGNE: Richard Armitage says that in late 2002, as the administration prepared for war, Ryan Crocker identified problems that would later come to pass.

Mr. ARMITAGE: Well I think his - a general amount of his views would be reflected in, I know, a memo that he sent to the secretary and me pointing out the tremendous difficulties that would ensue after an invasion of Iraq. The decision to invade is one thing, but the management of the post-invasion process is fraught with some difficulties that are rooted in history. Lack of a homogeneous population, the sectarian strains, the tribal nature of the society -all led to a very difficult equation.

MONTAGNE: This memo has become a touchstone, if you will, about pre-war planning. Was the memo on the money?

Mr. ARMITAGE: From my point of view it was dead on the money.

MONTAGNE: Ryan Crocker's predictions may have run counter to what the administration wanted to hear as it planned for war, but friend and colleague Barbara Bodine says he can't properly be called a critic.

Ms. BODINE: To me it's not out of character that Ryan would have written a memo that was candid and honest. That is what he does. He will give you his honest judgment. If the policy decision goes the other way, he will then try to implement it in the very best way that is possible.

MONTAGNE: That's what happened next. After the invasion, Ryan Crocker was posted in Baghdad where he ran the Coalition Provisional Authority's political reconstruction team. As Baghdad bureau chief for The Washington Post in 2003, Regiv Chandrasekaran was there.

Mr. REGIV CHANDRASEKARAN (The Washington Post): He probably knew more about Arab world politics than anybody else in the Green Zone at that time. But past experience was no guarantee of future performance in post-Saddam Iraq.

MONTAGNE: One of Ryan 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 a fair and workable thing to do, but...

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: It was a clear message from the Americans that sect and ethnicity matters in the future Iraqi state. And, you know, there are many Iraqis who look at that and say that was one of the early mistakes that was made that has helped create an environment of sectarian tension in the country.

MONTAGNE: Still, enough of Crocker's ideas now seem prescient, says Chandrasekaran, who has since written a book about the Green Zone, "Imperial Life in the Emerald City."

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: There were elements of the policy that I later came to learn that he didn't fully agree with, particularly the decision to disband the Iraqi army, according to people who worked with him and who have told me this. And he made those views known to Ambassador Paul Bremer, but Bremer had made up his mind and wasn't going to change course. And so it created a bit of tension between the two men.

MONTAGNE: Was Ryan Crocker's expertise in the Arab world valued or disregarded to some degree by the political appointees who were running the show?

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: I think that they listened thoughtfully and carefully, but at the end of the day the decisions were Bremer's. And so though Ryan possessed a pre-eminent knowledge, he did not possess a pre-eminent position of influence.

MONTAGNE: Now, if he's confirmed, the decisions will be Ryan Crocker's -the man sent to fix what he could not change four years ago. And that's something the ambassador has in common with the new commanding general.

Ms. BODINE: They are both so uniquely qualified, and I think they are going to make such an interesting team.

MONTAGNE: Former Ambassador Barbara Bodine.

Ms. BODINE: What I know of General Petraeus - and he's kind of willing to be at the edge of conventional wisdom and policy - and Ryan, it is a very interesting question to ask: where might we be today if these two had been selected for these positions a year, two years, three years ago? I don't know what the answer to that is. It will be one of the inevitable speculations of history.

MONTAGNE: The Senate is expected to hold Ryan Crocker's confirmation hearing next week. For our profile of General Petraeus, go to npr.org.

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