Few have had an upclose look to turmoil like Ryan Crocker, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon … and that’s just in the past two decades. After a career navigating what’s become a who’s who of the world’s most tumultuous regions, the Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient recently became a dean at Texas A&M University. In this conversation with OZY, before speaking at the Common Good Forum in New York, Crocker tries to make sense of the chaos left in places he once tried to help piece together.
OZY: What’s the gist of your assessment of the Middle East today?
Ryan Crocker: The modern Middle East emerged in the wake of World War I. And in the century since, there has never been a time of greater chaos or disorder than now. It’s not just the revolutions and overthrow of regimes, but the failure of states themselves. And with the failure of states, we’ve seen the rise of the Islamic State, al-Qaida, Hezbollah.
To try to make sense of it, I find the notion of a Middle Eastern Cold War helpful. The principal protagonists are Iran and Saudi Arabia — they are not fighting each other, but their proxies certainly are.
U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker
Source: Public Domain
OZY: Why is that the case?
R.C.: This period of unprecedented chaos coincides with a period of unprecedented U.S. disengagement in the region. The Obama administration has deviated — from a pretty consistent post-World War II pattern of deep engagement in the area by both Republican and Democratic presidents — to a policy of relative disengagement. That, to me, is the true Obama doctrine.
This is a generation coming of age that looks at their countries and the world from a perspective that no previous generation ever mustered.
OZY: You would argue that we need more engagement, even though places like Iraq and Libya are more destabilized today than they were before U.S. intervention?
R.C.: It isn’t military, in its essence. It’s political and diplomatic.
Take Iraq. I learned, one, be careful what you get into — that military interventions don’t have just third- and fourth-order consequences, but 30th- and 40th-order consequences. You are putting into motion forces that you are likely unable to control or understand or predict. The second thing I learned is to be just as careful about what you propose to get out of. Disengagement can have consequences as great as the original intervention. That’s what we’ve seen in Iraq after we disengaged, not just militarily but also politically, in 2011. And what happened? The space that we were working in was taken over by Islamic State on the one hand, and by the Iranians and their proxy militias on the other.
We need a secretary of state who has the full backing of the president. It’s no secret that Secretary Hillary Clinton wanted a much more active U.S. role at the outset of the Syrian crisis. She wanted to establish no-fly zones, things like that. She didn’t get them. And when the Syrians used chemical weapons on their own people, John Kerry very publicly said that we would retaliate — as the president had said we would, previously. And, of course, he was basically publicly contradicted by the White House.
OZY: You said the region is more chaotic than ever before. How does it feel to have spent so many years working on this, and not see progress?
R.C.: It’s heartbreaking, really. I was back in Iraq two months ago — my first trip back since I left at the end of my tour there in 2009 — and to see the level of violence, of human suffering, throughout the country, really is enormously sad. The same thing in Syria, where I was also ambassador during quieter times. It weighs on anyone who thinks about it at all, and it certainly weighs on us who have spent a lot of time in that area, and who have high regard for the culture and the people.
OZY: How do you see the future unfolding for locals in these places?
R.C.: That’s the heartening part of it, I suppose — the incredible resilience of ordinary people. Life goes on, even during war. Kids go to school. People have to eat. I remember my first tour in Lebanon, during the height of its civil war in the early ’80s. When the fighting permitted it, the restaurants would just open up. War demonstrates both the best and the worst of the human condition. But the average Iraqis, average Syrians, are just getting on with life, taking care of their neighbors and families.
You have a new generation entirely in Iraq and Afghanistan that has grown up in a free media and intellectual environment, where anyone can access anything on the Internet, and say anything. That wasn’t Afghanistan under the Taliban and certainly wasn’t Iraq under Saddam Hussein. This is a generation coming of age that looks at their countries and the world from a perspective that no previous generation ever mustered. And when you talk to them about the society they want to see, they are harshly critical of their parents’ generation and determined to do it differently. I hope they get that chance.