The Iraq Report's Other Voice
Ambassador's Appraisal May Carry a More Lasting Weight

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 10, 2007

Two witnesses will testify to Congress today on progress in Iraq. One arrived last week from Baghdad aboard a military aircraft, flanked by a bevy of aides and preceded by a team of advisers assigned a suite of Pentagon offices. The other flew commercial, glad that the flight was long enough to qualify for a business-class government ticket.

Their disparate routes to Washington capture the differences in anticipation and hoopla surrounding their joint congressional appearance. What lawmakers will hear from Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, has been the subject of frenzied speculation for months. Armed with four-star authority and a stack of charts, he is expected to say that expanded U.S. military operations show signs of success and merit more time.

Yet despite the spotlight focused on what has become known as the Petraeus report, the testimony of the man sitting beside Petraeus at the witness table, Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, may carry far more import for the long-term future of Iraq and the U.S. presence there. With little progress to recount in how the Iraqis have used the political "breathing space" that Bush promised his war strategy would create, Crocker's inevitably more nuanced appeal for time and patience is likely to be the tougher sell.

One of the few points of agreement on Iraq among the Bush administration, Congress and independent analysts is that long-term security hinges on reconciliation among the country's ethnic and sectarian groups. Crocker will be able to cite small steps -- a recent agreement among top Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders to worker harder and more closely together, and Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's grudging acceptance of the U.S. military's recruitment and arming of former Sunni insurgents to fight the group al-Qaeda in Iraq.

But there has been little movement toward the legislative benchmarks Congress has insisted the Iraqi government meet, from passing laws to regulate and equitably share Iraq's oil wealth to ending prohibitions on government employment for the many skilled Sunni officials and technocrats who once belonged to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.

Like Petraeus -- a Princeton PhD who finished at the top of his 1983 class at the Army's Command and General Staff College and oversaw the rewriting of the service's Counterinsurgency Manual -- Crocker is widely considered the best and brightest the government has to offer for the task at hand. Intense and introverted, he is a career Foreign Service officer with long, high-level experience in the Middle East and South Asia.

Iraq is not the first society Crocker has witnessed fall apart firsthand. His formative career experience occurred in Beirut in the early 1980s, when a civil war between sectarian militias was well on its way to destroying Lebanon. While serving as a senior State Department officer at the time of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, he warned the administration of the pitfalls of an intervention, and now he is not at all certain that the country can be put back together soon.

But like Petraeus, Crocker believes that regardless of how the United States came to be in Iraq, an abrupt withdrawal would lead to disaster and dishonor. And like Petraeus on the security front, he has been given virtual carte blanche by Washington on his diplomatic efforts.

Since the day he arrived in Baghdad in March, said a U.S. official with close knowledge of his thinking, Crocker has received "little direction, second-guessing or resistance" from an administration desperate for good political news but with little sense of how to make it happen. A free hand is every diplomat's dream, the official said, but it is what often keeps Crocker awake at night.

Crocker and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice agreed in April on the importance of opening a dialogue with Iran on its activities in Iraq, a process that has proved halting and unproductive in two meetings Crocker has held this year. The White House has publicly dismissed the meetings as useless in persuading Tehran to stop aiding Iraqi militias. But Crocker, while not claiming any results, has patiently explained to the White House that such negotiations are often long and arduous, pressing the diplomat's belief that talking is almost always better than not. At his recommendation, the talks are likely to go at least a few more rounds.

His weekly video and telephone conferences with Bush, and more frequent conversations with Rice, are pressure-filled sessions that revolve around simple, urgent questions: Is there progress on the oil law? Has the budget been passed? Crocker often gives complicated and less-than-encouraging answers, said one U.S. official in Baghdad. Iraq, the ambassador explains, is a very different place, with a very different history, than the United States.

Yet Crocker is acutely conscious of congressional and U.S. public pressure for quick results. If there was no substantial political progress "over the next few months," he told reporters in early May, "it's going to be very hard to sustain the kind of support that Iraq really needs."

Most of Crocker's time is spent in the controlled chaos of meetings with Iraqi officials -- cajoling, commiserating and pressuring -- or hearing from and issuing instructions to a massive embassy staff of more than 600. He has hosted a flood of congressional and other high-level delegations that have swept through Baghdad.

His preferred method of information-gathering, however, is to be out and about among Iraqis. His fluent Arabic allows him to question shopkeepers and passers-by, while aides frantically ask embassy interpreters what he is talking about. Crocker's walkabouts attract hordes of Iraqis with everyday complaints about security threats, electricity shortages and missing paychecks. Although his excursions are choreographed with security teams and hangers-on, Crocker's entourage pales beside that of Petraeus in similar outings.

The near-simultaneous appointment of new U.S. diplomatic and military leadership in Iraq last winter was widely read as a signal that, despite the optimism with which Bush announced his new strategy, Washington finally recognized the perilous state of its Iraq venture and was prepared to step back from micromanagement and blue-sky assessments. Crocker's instructions, the official familiar with his thinking said, were, "It's going to be hard. . . . Get in there and make things happen."

He found Baghdad vastly changed -- and not for the better -- from his last posting there, in the summer of 2003, when he briefly served as political adviser to occupation czar L. Paul Bremer. Entire neighborhoods Crocker knew intimately from then -- and from his first Baghdad tour as a junior diplomat in the late 1970s -- had been destroyed by terrorist attacks and an escalating sectarian war. The U.S. military presence had become overwhelming, and the embassy that opened with Bremer's departure in 2004 was bloated and in disarray, with too many of the wrong people and not enough of the right ones.

Crocker demanded and received a high-level State Department review of staffing and brought in several of his own choices -- some of whom had to be persuaded to leave senior posts elsewhere -- for top positions in the Iraqi capital. "Originally, many of the people assigned to Baghdad had never been overseas before," said a U.S. official who recently returned from Iraq. "This trip was the first time I've had confidence in the people running the show. . . . We've finally replaced noble-minded, idealistic political appointees with people who can really make long-term plans."

Except for wry outbursts intended as humor, aides said, Crocker keeps his frustrations and irritations to himself, working them off in marathon jogs around the Green Zone, sometimes with Petraeus. The two men appear similar on the surface -- intense, high-achieving fitness enthusiasts -- and both have told intimates that their overall goal in today's congressional testimony is to maintain their integrity and that of their institutions.

But they also represent two vastly different diplomatic and military cultures, bringing different experiences and frames of historical reference to their jobs. Vietnam -- the defining event for a U.S. military generation -- was the subject of Petraeus's 1987 doctoral dissertation, though he did not serve there. While cautioning that historical analogies are always imprecise, Petraeus wrote that "there is no desire" within the military "to repeat the experience that provided the material for such descriptively titled books as 'Defeated: Inside America's Military Machine.' "

Beirut was Crocker's Vietnam. A brief U.S. intervention in its civil war ended when a terrorist truck bomb killed 241 Marines in 1983. For many in the Bush administration who frequently refer to the attack, the lesson was that the U.S. withdrawal represented a capitulation to terrorism. For Crocker, what stuck was the unpredictable consequences of American involvement in an internal conflict it does not understand.

Staff writers Thomas E. Ricks, Ann Scott Tyson and Robin Wright contributed to this report.

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