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Special Guest: Ambassador Ryan Crocker

November 7th, 2010
Ambassador Ryan Crocker

Ambassador Ryan Crocker

As the “surge” unfolded in Iraq in 2007 and 2008, two men became the public face of the counterinsurgency campaign: General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. While the former has remained in the spotlight, the latter has quietly retired from a distinguished diplomatic career to Texas A&M University, where he now serves as dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service. Bellum was lucky enough to catch up with him over the phone.

Mr. Crocker’s career reveals something of a love affair with the broader Middle East. His father served in the Air Force, which meant Mr. Crocker spent his final years of high school in Turkey. With his family, he visited Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon. “When I was in college I actually spent a summer hitchhiking from Amsterdam to Calcutta,” he explained. His journey took him through Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and ultimately led to him joining the Foreign Service and requesting an assignment in the Middle East. His first post was Iran. “I never made the conscious decision that I was going to spend my entire career as a Middle East specialist,” he said, but events had a momentum of their own.

Would he recommend such a journey to students today? “Back in that day,” he recalled, “I had to ride in a truck that took me into Iran from Turkey. You could see the lights of the Turkish-Soviet border, we were that close. And I thought, ‘What a forbidden world that is.’ Well, you can’t hitchhike through Iran anymore, but hey, you might try the northern route.”


Turkey is a confusing place. On the one hand, it joined the Council of Europe in 1949 and NATO in 1952, and is currently a candidate for accession into the European Union. On the other, it refused to support the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and complicated transatlantic efforts to forestall Iran’s nuclear program by jointly brokering a fuel swap deal with Brazil in May 2010. What are Americans to make of such a place?

“An historical perspective is always useful in these matters,” Mr. Crocker said. He suggested that the current Turkish leadership, including Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, President Abdullah Gul, and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, are currently pursuing “what some would call a neo-Ottomanist foreign policy.”

Until its dissolution after World War I, the Ottoman Empire, headquartered in Turkey, ruled much of the Middle East, from Yemen to Iraq and beyond. After the war, modern Kemalist Turkey shifted its gaze to Europe and the United States. Turkey sent troops to support the United Nations effort during the Korean War, for example. That trend has somewhat reversed in recent years.

“Now you’re seeing a Turkey much more engaged in its own neighborhood,” Mr. Crocker explained. “The foreign minister [Mr. Davutoglu] is very much a Middle Eastern specialist. I think that’s good. Certainly their engagement in Iraq has been very constructive, both in their support of the Baghdad government but also in taking a new look at their relationship with Iraq’s Kurdish region.”

“But at the same time, Turkey is a strategic partner for the US and for the West generally,” he cautioned. “They are a very important force for stability in the region.” Many Turks today sense that “in European eyes they’re not good enough to join the exclusive gentlemen’s club of the European Union.”

“I think the Europeans are being short-sighted on this,” said Mr. Crocker. “Certainly the Turkish economy is stronger than those of a number of its [the EU's] original members. But we need to keep Turkey firmly in the Western camp, and with these strains in Turkish-European relations it puts a particular burden on the US to make clear to Ankara that we are a reliable friend and partner to Turkey. And not just in the security field — as an economic, diplomatic, and cultural partner, as well. It’s not a bad thing at all that they’re paying more attention to the Middle East. We all need to work to be sure that this does not develop into a turning away from the West.”

Problems: Present and Future

As we shifted our own gaze from Turkey towards the wider region, Mr. Crocker explained that “strategic patience” was the key for US foreign policy.

  • Iraq: “[It] is by no means over or settled. They’re still at the beginning of the story. We can’t just say, ‘Our work there is done, let’s turn the page and move on.’ We have to stay engaged and I’m pleased to see that the Obama administration, particularly the Vice President, has made it clear that Iraq will remain a priority.”
  • AfPak: “We’ve got to commit to, really, a long war, to be fought by a variety of means — all instruments of power, not just the military — and to sustain a strategic engagement and partnership, especially with Pakistan, who has seen us come and seen us go. So we need to signal that we’re there to stay.”
  • Iran: “We have enormous challenges with Iran and no easy answers. I think the Obama administration is doing the right thing in pursuing a policy of, if you will, internationalization of the Iranian nuclear threat — to make this not the US or Israeli problem, but an international problem, to work to shore up support in the Security Council with the European Union and others. But I think Iran is determined to acquire a nuclear weapon. I don’t think it matters who rules from Tehran. This is part of Iran’s geostrategic sense of itself. This is going to be a policy of buying time. The regime may not change, but perhaps its policies will. We need to delay, obstruct, make difficult, to the maximum extent possible, Iran’s nuclear quest. But it will be a major problem going forward.”
  • Israel/Palestine: “This is hard. And it’s going to go on being hard. If it was not so hard, there would’ve been a solution six decades ago. So the Arab-Israeli set of issues will constitute a problem that requires sustained high-level engagement to manage the issue, towards a time when an eventual settlement is possible, but I don’t think that time will come quickly. But the management will be important. Left alone, it only gets worse.”
  • Islamic extremism: “Lots of challenges out there, all of them long-range. We as Americans just need to understand that these are issues in our own national security. They require our patience, they require our understanding, and that includes an understanding of the religious dimension — not to make our challenges become a religious war, which of course is what our enemies would love.”

Whither the Nation-State?

Globalization and concomitant transnational issues have led some commentators and political scientists to forecast the imminent demise of the nation-state construct over the next century. Political failures, technological achievements, and the rise of “sovereign individuals” could, in theory, render our traditional notions of government superfluous. Mr. Crocker was not persuaded.

“The demise of the nation-state has been predicted for decades,” he explained. “But certainly as one looks at the Middle East region it is very much alive and well. It is striking to me that although the borders of many modern Middle Eastern countries are the result of decisions by colonial powers with which the peoples of the area had nothing to do, nonetheless they have been ready to fight and die to preserve the sanctity of those borders.”

By way of example, Mr. Crocker cited Iran and Iraq, which fought throughout the 1980s.

“No Middle Eastern borders have changed,” he continued. “National identity within the post-World War I constructs that were determined by the colonial powers have nonetheless been absolutely solid.”

He noted that he has encountered the debate over the nation-state’s future in academia since his arrival at the Bush School. “From a practitioner’s perspective,” Mr. Crocker concluded,” the nation-state as manifested in the Middle East is going to be with us far, far, far into the future.”

Academia and Texas A&M

Every year some notable practitioner retires from government and finds a post at one of the nation’s top colleges. For some, they are natural academics to begin with and so this is a return to the University as an idea. For others, they have a specific reason for choosing the school and the nature of the job in question. For Mr. Crocker, it is very much the latter.

“I am not an academic, although I have enormous respect for academicians,” he began. “The Bush School is a school of government and public service, not public policy or public administration.”

Mr. Crocker cited the statistic that some 70 percent of Bush School graduates enter public service, whether in the public or non-profit sector. “In a sense, the Bush School is, if you will, the civilian equivalent of the military tradition of A&M,” he explained, referring to the college’s famous Corps of Cadets. “This university has always produced some of our finest military officers. The Bush School is producing their civilian equivalent, those who will carry our nation forward in civil service.”

There is an irony here. Ambassador Crocker has been called the modern-day Lawrence of Arabia, and his varied career has taken him around the world at some of our nation’s most difficult moments. His most lasting legacy, however, may very well be the future generation of public servants currently under his tutelage in College Station, Texas.

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