Ryan Crocker is a six-time U.S. Ambassador, serving in Afghanistan (2011-2012), Iraq (2007-2009), Pakistan (2004-2007), Syria (1998-2001), Kuwait (1994-1997) and Lebanon (1990-1993). While at Stanford for a lecture organized by the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies, Crocker sat down with The Daily to discuss his diplomatic career through war and peace.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): You majored in English literature in college. How does that lead to a career in diplomacy?
Ryan Crocker (RC): English literature is a dream as a major because, in addition to learning the great works, it teaches you to think very broadly, to look beyond the obvious, to capture hidden meanings. All of this is great preparation for life and, indeed, the Foreign Service, where we live in a world of nuance and uncertainty.
TSD: Did you always know you were a diplomat?
RC: No. I grew up in an air force family and spent my young life living around the world with my parents — [I] graduated from high school in Turkey, for example… My senior year [of college] I took the Foreign Service exam, I applied to graduate school overseas, I applied for the Peace Corps, I talked to military recruiters — anything that was going to get me launched into the world of international affairs.
TSD: You’ve served in multiple foreign policy crises. What draws you to war zones?
RC: My first experience in a war zone was a very long time ago, as a political counselor in the American embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, [from] 1981 to1984.
TSD: Did you witness the Beirut [barracks] bombing?
RC: I did indeed discover the massacre… I discovered that I could function under these kinds of [crisis] circumstances, and diplomacy has the most importance in the most dangerous places. These things become literally matters of life and death.
TSD: Can you describe what the bombing was like?
RC: I thought I had taken a direct hit from something like a rocket-propelled grenade — [I had] no idea of the magnitude of the attack. We didn’t know that until I walked out of my office and instead of looking at the suite of offices that was facing me across the large common space, I was looking straight up into the Mediterranean Sea because the whole side of the building had been sheared off.
TSD: What are some of your proudest accomplishments of your time in office?
RC: I think just looking at the latter years, the success we had in turning the tide of civil war in Iraq in 2007 was a pretty important achievement. Of course our troops on the ground were the ones who fought for that relative stability, but diplomacy had a lot to do with it too.
I was lead negotiator for a truly historic agreement, a strategic framework agreement, between the United States and Iraq that makes us allies for years to come — [a] relationship we’ve never had with Iraq. So succeeding in that negotiation meant a lot to me. Of course [we] had a very similar opportunity in Afghanistan, where we concluded a strategic partnership agreement that President Obama traveled to Kabul a year ago to sign with President Karzai.
TSD: You’ve served six different administrations. How have you worked with different presidents and avoided the partisan tensions of today’s politics?
RC: Well, it’s a source of some pride to me that I’ve served as an ambassador six times. I did so three times under Republican presidents and three times under Democratic presidents. It’s hard to be more evenhanded or middle of the road than that. We are professionals — we are not elected officials.
It’s quite a responsibility to make recommendations on policy. In the case of Iraq, I gave my best judgment. The decision was made to go ahead with the invasion, and I never gave it a second thought. I stood up, I saluted, and I was out in Iraq just weeks after the fall of Baghdad.
TSD: What’s one thing a career in war zones taught you?
RC: [Crisis] gives you perspective. What’s a bad day? Is a bad day [one] in which your car doesn’t start, or in which a day a mob destroys your home? [My experience] taught me not [to] sweat the small stuff, in that almost everything is small stuff.