`Behind-the-scenes' nominee

Iraqi ambassador hopeful valued for Arab experience, direct nature

March 04, 2007|By Bay Fang | Bay Fang,Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON --Ryan Crocker first earned his reputation for toughness as a young diplomat in Beirut in the mid-1980s, when he would go jogging with the Marine guards. The Marines gave him the code name "Popeye," after the spinach-chomping, straight-talking and decidedly unglamorous cartoon character.

"Like Popeye, Ryan is wiry and tough, and he does not go in for pretenses and fancy frills," said David Mack, a retired diplomat who served with Crocker in Lebanon.

Throughout his diplomatic career, Crocker, the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Iraq, has been known for his quiet competence. From his first posting in Khorramshar, Iran, in 1972 to the job of ambassador to Pakistan that he has held since 2004, Crocker has had a reputation as intellectually rigorous but relentlessly understated.

And that, some say, is what is needed in Iraq right now. "He's probably the best man for an impossible situation," said Mahmud Ali-Durrani, Pakistan's ambassador to the U.S.

American officials have come to the same conclusion. "Ryan's skills and style are particularly well-suited for this period," said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of U.S.-Iraqi relations. "It's a period where . . . the Iraqi government is aggressively sovereign and wants to be up front. Ryan is ... very much a behind-the-scenes kind of guy. That style will allow us to continue to play an important role, but also ensure we don't overpower the Iraqi government."

Crocker, 57, who is still awaiting a confirmation vote by the Senate and therefore not granting interviews, grew up in an Air Force family and went to school in Morocco, Canada and Turkey. Since joining the Foreign Service in 1971 he has been posted to Qatar, Iraq and Egypt, and served as ambassador in Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon.

A small-statured, lean man with a shock of white hair, he has been described by a colleague as a "tiny bundle of energy."

Despite holding a possibly unrivaled record of service in Arab countries, Crocker has avoided the reputation of being a pro-Arab ideologue that has dogged Arab-speaking Foreign Service officers in the past.

"He's one of the few surviving Arabists in the Foreign Service," said Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel. "But he's not like the old-time Arabists who were emotionally committed. He's just intellectually interested, and very objective."

If confirmed, Crocker will take over from Zalmay Khalilzad, who is known for the opposite approach - an overpowering diplomatic style. During Khalilzad's tenure in Baghdad, which began in June 2005, he pushed hard for a "national compact" to unite the country. Until the end of last year, he believed he could get the different factions to agree on a bargain that would tackle all the big issues at once - oil, de-Baathification, federalism and local elections.

But the Bush administration has switched tacks in Iraq since the congressional elections, emphasizing pragmatism over ideology. The Iraq strategy review introduced early this year concluded that a comprehensive agreement would be neither achievable nor effective, and instead called for "reconciliation with a small `r' " - aiming for incremental successes while focusing on local-level reconciliation.

That is where Crocker fits in. "He will be willing and able to do the national ticket items, but he'll also recognize the value of the lower level, less headline-y things," said the senior administration official. "People were focused on getting the big enchilada before, but Ryan will appreciate the value of just trying to empower people in the field to get small successes on the ground throughout the country."

Crocker's performance in each of his postings has reflected this tendency toward modest realism - for better or for worse.

Husain Haqqani, who teaches international relations at Boston University and has been a consultant to the Pakistani government, noted that Crocker, as ambassador, has steered clear of criticizing Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. Haqqani cited that as an example of Crocker's emphasis on stability over ideology.

"He definitely does not have an overarching vision of transforming the world, like the neocons," he said. "Instead, he sees the role of diplomacy as dealing with the world as it is. But the truth sometimes lies in the middle."

Crocker first went to Baghdad in 1978, a year before Saddam Hussein seized power. There he met his future wife, Christine, who was Mack's secretary at the time. Life was difficult, with diplomats being subjected to constant surveillance and limited mobility, but Crocker seemed to thrive.

"If he has any faults, it's that he has no requirement for his own physical comfort, and he is hard on other people who might not be made of such stern stuff," said Mack, who recalled a dinner of crackers and canned peas at the Crockers' place in Beirut.

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