Ryan Crocker, the retired U.S. diplomatic pointman with experience across the Near East, said the United States must continue engaging in crises-racked nations, even though “we lack strategic patience” and try too hard to transplant American ideas where they don’t take.
Speaking Tuesday at the Stimson Center, the former ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria among other countries expressed regrets that the Obama administration a year ago did not “insert diplomats” in civil-war-ravaged Syria with help from Turkey “to sort out who’s allied with whom and what are their agendas.”
The situation “called not for U.S. boots on the ground but a set of wingtips and pumps on the ground, worn by American diplomats who know the country and the language,” said Crocker, a 37-year Foreign Service veteran now teaching at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.
“We have no granularity in terms of knowing what’s going on on the ground anymore,” he said, acknowledging the danger diplomats face by citing the September 2012 assassination of his friend, Ambassador Chris Stevens, in Benghazi, Libya. “The Foreign Service is a service, in which we’re sworn in as officers, so we can’t operate at zero-risk,” Crocker said. “If we lose a few, that’s very sad, but it’s the price of doing business.”
The key lesson from the current turmoil in the region, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, he said, “is to engage.”
In Syria, Crocker said, “I supported training and equipping the opposition in principle, but it requires vetting to make sure they’re not al Qaeda, so I don’t think things will move fast enough on the ground to make a difference.”
The administration’s rhetoric that "Assad must go," is a hope, not a policy for removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power, said Crocker, who predicts years of bloody stalemate in the country.
U.S. engagement elsewhere in the region, including Afghanistan and Pakistan, has been inconsistent and short-sighted, he said.
“We tend to be short-term in our thinking, impatient, lack strategic patience, which is what our enemies have come to count on, and what our allies fear,” he said.
“As the Taliban say, the Americans have the watch but we have the time, and the Americans will tire of the pain and expense.”
Still, the West must engage, he stressed. “These societies won’t be better if we decide it’s not our business.”