Crocker Looks Back

A candid interview from the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq on the recent elections, the Iraqi tendency toward authoritarianism, and President Barack Obama's proposed drawdown, which, Crocker admits, makes him "nervous."

Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images
Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images

Ryan Crocker served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2007 to 2009, during the critical period that began with U.S. President George W. Bush’s "surge" and ended with Iraq’s January 2009 provincial elections. Working closely with Gen. David Petraeus, Crocker played a major role in the improvement of Iraq’s security conditions, which culminated in the Iraqi Army’s successful assault on Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in the southern city of Basra.

Foreign Policy‘s David Kenner spoke with Crocker, now the dean of Texas A&M University’s George Bush School of Government and Public Service, about what Iraq’s recent elections means for the country. While he was heartened by the relatively successful election day and the increasing support for cross-sectarian coalitions, Crocker also spoke candidly about his opposition to President Barack Obama’s plan to decrease the U.S. presence in Iraq to 50,000 "support troops" by the end of August. "It makes me nervous," he said. Excerpts:

Foreign Policy: We don’t have results for the Iraqi elections, but I was hoping for your perspective based on what we know so far. What’s your top-level assessment?

Ryan Crocker: I think the elections came off as well as anyone could have hoped. The significant thing, in contrast to the 2005 elections, is that the Iraqis basically did this themselves. We had 130,000 troops everywhere in the country to secure the last elections. This time it was all Iraqis.

FP: [Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki is a known quantity in U.S. circles, but what do you think accounts for [Iraqi National Accord candidate Ayad] Allawi’s surge of appeal in recent months?

RC: We saw the early indications of this in the 2009 provincial elections. [Allawi] really only campaigned for the last month or so before the elections, but he did surprisingly well. I think after the horrors of sectarian violence that Iraq went through, his message of cross-sectarian interest and identity resonated. Again, we’ll have to see where this shakes out, but if it turns out he did quite well, it’s part of a process that has been going on for some time.

FP: In a recent conference call with FP, New York Times Iraq reporter Anthony Shadid referred to Allawi’s success in "capturing neo-Baathist sentiment." Others have raised concerns about his autocratic tendencies. Is this a concern?

RC: I always find it interesting that Allawi is characterized as a neo-Baathist, since he narrowly survived an ax attack by the real Baathists on him. So no, I don’t see in him a return to the day of the people who tried to murder him.

But there is a more profound question underneath this that I frame along the lines of political cultures persisting after regimes change. Iraqi political culture has a tendency toward authoritarianism. Since the 1958 revolution, you’ve seen a succession of authoritarian leaders; it didn’t start with Saddam Hussein. You see it in Maliki, who reminds me not of Saddam, as his critics assert, but more of [former Iraq prime minister] Abdul Karim Qasim. One phenomenon to watch is signs of a persistent authoritarian streak in Iraqi political culture, not at all limited just to Allawi.

FP: Gen. Ray Odierno has said that the Iraq elections will keep the drawdown of U.S. forces on track. Do you personally believe that the U.S. military can get down to 50,000 troops by Sept. 1?

RC: The agreement I helped negotiate had an intermediate timeline to have forces out of cities and towns by mid-2009, which was accomplished, and full withdrawal by 2011. The August 2010 date was not part of that agreement. I would have preferred to see us keep maximum flexibility with the Iraqis between now and 2011.

It makes me nervous. We’re going to have a prolonged period of government formation. It could take two or three months, [and] it’s likely to be a pretty turbulent process. I think [the government formation process], in and of itself, is not likely to be destabilizing, but it means that the major issues out there aren’t going to be addressed. Things like disputed internal boundaries, Kirkuk, the relationship between federal, regional, and provincial governments — all of that’s going to be on hold until you have a new government.

That means that things aren’t going to be much further along come August than they are right now. So I would be more comfortable, within the terms of the agreement we negotiated, with keeping a more robust force for a longer period of time.

FP: It seems the United States is struggling to cope with its decreasing influence on events in Iraq, while at the same time trying to guide the country through this potentially dangerous period. What are the most important issues for the U.S. government to concentrate on following the elections?

RC: [The United States should] stay intensely engaged politically, but do it quietly. We can be very helpful in the government formation process by not trying to impose on anyone, but looking for where we can make a suggestion, bring parties together, be in the room when that’s helpful, just stay engaged.

I think the issue of institution-building is key. For institutions like the Council of Representatives, the ministries, [and] provincial government[s] to become fully functioning entities is a huge challenge. Rule of law and corruption — a major challenge, and a very long way to go for Iraq in developing a society that is based on [the] rule of law. States’ rights issues –that’s part of the Kurdish-Arab issue. This stuff isn’t really worked out. Our own history shows us how difficult and dangerous these states’ rights issues can become.

FP: From your remarks during your time in Iraq, it was clear that you were never certain that the "surge" would meet with success. This is as good a time as any to offer a final verdict about the surge. Did it succeed beyond your expectations?

RC: I was careful not to have any expectations. We chipped it out one hard day at a time.

For me, at least, there’s a very clear linkage between the surge and what happened on Sunday. I think the surge triggered a virtuous spiral that is still turning in the right direction, as these elections indicate. I think we’d be having a dramatically different conversation about Iraq had the surge not taken place.

FP: Any closing thoughts?

RC: I’m a little concerned that for many Americans, including those in the policy realm, Iraq is yesterday’s war. It’s not. It’s today’s and tomorrow’s challenge. We’ve got to demonstrate the resolve and the strategic patience to stay engaged. The Iranians have had a couple of bad years, but they’re extraordinarily patient, as are the Syrians.

I’m really worried about the consequences of us getting tired of [Iraq], saying, "We’ve done all we can." Tom Friedman had a column today saying, "Well, the elections were great; now it’s up to the Iraqis." Yes, in part. But if this is going to continue to turn in the right direction, we’re going to have to be there, strongly engaged, for a long time to come.

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