Monday, April 14, 2008

In Defense of Ryan Crocker

The number #1 most emailed article from the New York Times today is a blog entry by Dick Cavett posted three days ago entitled: Memo to Petraeus & Crocker: More Laughs, Please.” Cavett writes in part:

Back to poor Crocker. His brows are knitted. And he has a perpetually alarmed expression, as if, perhaps, he feels something crawling up his leg. Could it be he is being overtaken by the thought that an honorable career has been besmirched by his obediently doing the dirty work of the tinpot Genghis Khan of Crawford, Texas?”

I’ve never worked for Ambassador Crocker, nor have I ever meet the man but I take exception with the preceding comment because it shows an ignorance of what Foreign Service officers do in the service of this country. In 1983, François de Laboulaye and Jean Laloy had this to say about dissent and ambassadors (I’m quoting here from Charles Freeman, Jr.’s Diplomat’s Dictionary):

“There are strict limits, dictated by common sense and the realities of the situation, to how far an ambassador can go in opposing a position of his own government. If a compromise is not possible and once the final decision has been made, he must of course loyally and scrupulously implement it even if it goes against what he had recommended. But until the final decision is made an ambassador owes his government the frankest and most unvarnished advice.”

Whatever you might think of the “tinpot Genghis Khan of Crawford, Texas,” or how he got here, he is the elected president of this country. And whether you personally know Ambassador Crocker or not, you should know that all Foreign Service personnel like the Ambassador, not only must agree to worldwide availability -- that is, they may be called on to serve anywhere in the world, they must also agree to publicly support the policies of the United States Government regardless of their personal sentiments. That’s right! You’ve got to do the job even if you don’t agree with Uncle Sam.

And if you disagree with our Government’s policy, you have two options: 1) you use what is called the “Dissent Channel,” a serious policy channel reserved only for consideration of responsible dissenting and alternative views on substantive foreign policy issues (you can read more about that here) or 2) you quit and walk away (like what Brady Kiesling and two other officers did).

Sometime in 2002, prior to the Iraq invasion, then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell reportedly tasked Ryan Crocker and Assistant Secretary of State William Burns with exploring the risks of military intervention. That resulted in the now famous six-page memo they entitled "The Perfect Storm," which, and I quote from WP’s Robin Wright, “bluntly predicted that toppling Hussein could unleash long-repressed sectarian and ethnic tensions, that the Sunni minority would not easily relinquish power, and that powerful neighbors such as Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia would try to move in to influence events. It also cautioned that the United States would have to start from scratch building a political and economic system because Iraq's infrastructure was in tatters (you can read the entire article here).”

I would argue that Ambassador Crocker had given his “frankest and most unvarnished advice” in 2002, and I think it would be unjust to fault him now for doing the best he could in what Mr. Cavett calls “dirty work.” Somebody’s gotta do this “dirty work,” and frankly, we’re better off having a professional on the ground who speaks the language, and understands the region than one who doesn't.

A Newsweek Exclusive asks: “No American diplomat seems better qualified than Ryan Crocker to turn Iraq around-but can he do it?” Honestly, I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know this -- Ambassador Crocker deserves our respect for doing the difficult job he was tasked to do, not the public's scorn.


C.C. said...

Another great post! Yes, ambassadors have to be diplomats all the way around.

fshusband said...

The problem is, though, that the way Crocker squirmed and hesitated over what he was saying was so stilted, and he looked so awkward saying it that it was clear that he wasn't delivering an honest opinion. It was like watching H. Clinton deliver a speech about shooting guns or McCain talking about god or religious values.

Consul-At-Arms said...

I've quoted you and linked to you here:

DS said...

Thanks C.C. and thanks CAA for the link and the quote.

I think fshusband actually brings up one of the endemic problems we have, in my view. State spend a lot of time and money selecting the best and the brightest to represent our country, and send candidates through a rigorous, demanding intake process. But once they are hired we seem to think that they should be naturally gifted in every way, including public speaking. I have seen ELOs sent to do PD outreach without proper PD training; they were supposed to just know how to engage their foreign audience without being taught how to. I mean, really's like giving a soldier a gun without teaching him how to shoot.

I agree that you need a well-polished presentation skills particularly in Congress, but diplomats are known for their reporting skills not their briefing skills (not an excuse, just reality). The General of course (whether this one or that) is a different matter since junior officers in the military go up the ranks learning how to brief their superior officers. By the time they make General, they come very close to perfecting that skill. But how hard could that be - doing briefings? From what I hear, hard enough to make any briefer sweat bullets every time ...

The other thing I'm thinking regarding the Ambassador's recent testimony is I'd be very surprise if that speech was not vetted by "H" ....