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."

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.

Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images


Interview: Tzipi Livni

Israel’s leading opposition politician says Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needs to “face reality” and work toward a two-state solution with the Palestinians -- before it’s too late.

Tzipi Livni has led Israel into war, and also attempted to guide it to peace. She played an integral role in Israel's 2006 war with Hezbollah as foreign minister in the government of Ehud Olmert, and negotiated the agreement, enshrined as U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, that ended the conflict. In 2008, she held talks on the "core issues" of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei -- the first time such discussions had been held since the acrimonious collapse of the Camp David talks in 2000. Israel's Knesset elections, held in February 2009, presented a mixed bag: Her Kadima Party won more seats than any other party, but the Israeli right captured a majority of the total vote.

Rather than bring her party into a government headed by Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, Livni elected to join the opposition. She has assailed the Netanyahu government for overseeing a "serious decline in Israel's standing around the world," and for failing to resume peace talks with the Palestinian Authority. Foreign Policy spoke with Livni shortly after the announcement that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would agree to a U.S. proposal for "indirect talks," marking the tentative resumption of negotiations for the first time since 2008. The position of Livni, who told FP's David Kenner that an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is "the reason for me to be in politics," will do much to determine whether this new round talks sputters to a halt or leads to serious negotiations between the two sides. Excerpts:

Foreign Policy: It appears that Abbas will agree to resume proximity talks. Is it a diplomatic victory that the talks are being renewed, or is it a step backwards from the direct diplomacy of previous governments?

Tzipi Livni: Direct talks are very important. I think that the best thing to do is continue from where we stopped -- there is no need to start all over again. It is true that 16 years passed [after the Oslo Accords], and during all these years we had ongoing negotiations. [When I was] representing the Israeli interest [during] the negotiations, there is nothing that I discussed or agreed with the Palestinians that any Israeli prime minister who wants to make peace cannot agree to. I believe that we need to continue from where we stopped -- and when I say from where we stopped, it means from where the negotiation teams led by Abu Alaa [Qurei] and myself left off [in late 2008].

I'm glad to see the beginning of something, but for me the goal is not the negotiations -- the goal is the peace treaty. There is a big question mark [as to] whether this is just the beginning of a dialogue, or it is going to lead to a real peace treaty. For me, this is the real issue, and this is the goal: To end the conflict and [sign] a peace treaty. We faced a situation in the past in which negotiations led to more frustration, and blaming one another.

FP: Do you think this Netanyahu government is capable of engaging in serious negotiations with the Palestinians and reaching a deal without breaking apart?

TL: I think the question is where Netanyahu is, and later where his party is -- and only then where his coalition is. After my talks with Netanyahu before the formation of the government and afterwards, and I cannot say that it is clear that he's ready to make the decision. But let's see. We can test this. If he is clear, and the only thing that is needed is my support, he is going to get it. For now, it is too early to know.

FP: If the talks do appear to be advancing, and it looks like they could reach a serious agreement, would it be possible that you would drop your conditions for joining the government?

TL: I say to you what I said to Netanyahu publicly and privately: I entered politics because of the need to end the conflict with the Palestinians. In a moment in which the only thing that is needed to make peace is my support, he's going to get it -- even if this is going to be the last thing I do in politics. But as I said before, it's not just about atmosphere, it's about a real understanding of his sense, and what he's willing to do in order to make peace. And it's too early to know right now.

FP: It's no secret  that this hasn't been the best year for American-Israeli relations, and a lot of that has to do with relationship between U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. From the Israeli side, how do you believe that it could have been handled differently?

TL: There is a mutual interest between Israel and the United States of America. It is more than friendship -- it is friendship plus mutual interest, and it is bipartisan. The understanding that Iran should not have a nuclear weapon, plus the need to solve the conflict with the Palestinians according to the idea of two states for two peoples is something that represents the Israeli interest and the American interest.

So, instead of having all these suspicious thoughts [about] Barack Obama's speeches and intentions, we should sit with him and share not only our views and vision in general, but what is the best way to achieve these goals. But it took some time for the Israeli government to understand that two states for two peoples is something that is needed -- that it is more than words, and that the alternative is worse. And it led to misunderstandings, unfortunately.

FP: At the same time, there have been interesting developments  within the American Jewish community and its relation with Israel. Do you think the Netanyahu government made an error by boycotting more liberal organizations such as J Street?

TL:  I meet all the groups, and especially all the congressmen and senators, who come to Israel and who are willing to support us. And more than that, I'm willing to meet with everybody to share ideas -- to explain and to convince them on what is needed for the sake of the state of Israel. This is, as I just said, also an American interest. When there is somebody, or a group of people, who want to support Israel, we need to allow for different views on different issues, and to discuss this -- not to boycott them.

FP: What can the United States do, or what can Barack Obama do, to facilitate direct talks?

TL: Everybody is focusing on resuming direct talks, and I would say to end the conflict. We have no time -- time works against us. The conflict can be transferred from a national conflict to a religious one, which is unsolvable, and this is something that we cannot afford.

The United States needs to know where the parties are, not just in the willingness to enter the same room, but where they really are in the final-status agreements. The proximity talks are good opportunity to do so.

FP: Some people say that progress on the Arab-Israeli front would be helpful in limiting Iranian influence in your region. Do you believe that's true?

TL: The Iranians are abusing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to gain more support from radical elements in the region. It is clear to me that the Iranian ideology is not an outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Let us assume that we solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The next day, their religious ideology is not going to be changed. But it is also true that they abuse this.... They try to [position] themselves as representing the Muslim and the Arab narrative when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But I think any connection between the two is not useful. We need to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. And we need to solve the conflict between the Israel and the Palestinians, for itself. The goal is to reach a peace treaty between the Israel and the Palestinians, not just to prevent the Iranians from exploiting the conflict for their own cause. We need to do it anyway.

FP: You have now been in the opposition for a year. How do you assess your last year, and how do you think Kadima can distinguish itself in the future from the Netanyahu government?

TL: I'm not asking myself, "How I can be different from Netanyahu?," because I am different, and Kadima is different from Likud, by its own nature. When Netanyahu said the words "two states for two peoples," it was good to hear. I want most Israelis to understand, maybe for the first time, that this is the only option for a future peace treaty. You know something, I think that Netanyahu said the words because Kadima was not in the government. There were those who wanted us to be the fig leaf of the government, and to say nice words to the world. And they couldn't get it. So Netanyahu and [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman and all the others needed to face reality, and the international community. And for the first time, what they call the right wing in Israel needed to say that two states for two peoples is their own goal. Whether they're serious or not is going to be tested.

Ronen Zvulun-Pool/Getty Images