A Diplomat Who Loves The Really Tough Jobs

The Joint Chiefs chairman, Gen. Peter Pace, right, with Crocker in Pakistan last year.
The Joint Chiefs chairman, Gen. Peter Pace, right, with Crocker in Pakistan last year. (By D. Myles Cullen -- Department Of Defense Via Ap)
By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 11, 2007

On April 18, 1983, Ryan Crocker was in his office at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, with its spectacular view overlooking the Mediterranean. His wife, Christine, was working next door. At 1:05 p.m. a dark delivery van made a sharp left onto the guarded cobblestone lane and rammed into the front wall, detonating an explosive that ripped apart the seven-story high-rise. A huge brown cloud of smoke could be seen for miles.

It was the first suicide bombing by Islamic extremists against a U.S. target.

Crocker -- the career diplomat the Bush administration has nominated to serve as U.S. ambassador in Baghdad -- was blown against the wall. Bloodied but not seriously injured, he and his wife fled the building. He then began to search through the twisted steel and concrete for colleagues.

New York Times correspondent Thomas Friedman lived nearby and raced to the site. "I came around the corner and there was the American Embassy cut in half like a doll's house, bodies hanging out of it, smoke belching, and the first person I saw staggering around in the ruins was Ryan, his sleeves rolled up, looking in the rubble," Friedman recalls.

The bomb, which killed 64 and wiped out the CIA station, marked the start of a trend that now defines U.S. foreign policy.

If there's an awful assignment in the Middle East or South Asia, Crocker, 57, has had it. He actually prefers the hot spots, colleagues say.

The toughest hardship assignment for Crocker -- and the only one he tries to avoid -- is Washington, says former ambassador Edward Abington. "He prefers the most difficult posts. There's a real sense of adventure in him," Abington says.

Seven months before the Beirut attack, I encountered Crocker after a right-wing Christian militia entered the Beirut slums of Sabra and Shatila and, in a 48-hour orgy of killing, murdered some 800 people, including many women, children and the elderly. Journalists were among the first to go into the area after the militia left, but when many of us arrived, Crocker and his wife were already surveying the bloodshed and streets littered with bodies.

"With a hand-held transmitter, he was walking through the Shatila refugee camp and describing as he moved scenes of a massacre of shocking magnitude," wrote former secretary of state George Shultz in his autobiography, "Turmoil and Triumph."

The massacre followed the assassination of Lebanon's Christian President-elect Bashir Gemayel.

"I was on the phone with him for hours trying to confirm whether or not Gemayel was dead," recalls former U.S. assistant secretary of state Elizabeth Jones. "We had been burned with the [former Egyptian president Anwar] Sadat assassination, so we had to have someone see the body or say that he was still alive."

Crocker was dispatched. "He's extremely tough-minded about what needs to be done even in the worst tragedy," Jones says.

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