Diplomats to Trump: Engage internationally
Retired ambassador Crocker sounds warning to U.S.
A U.S. diplomat who ran embassies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and other hotspots warns that Europe and the Middle East are teetering and says president-elect Donald Trump must engage strategically to protect national interests as rivals horn in.
“What happens beyond our borders affects us very, very directly,” retired ambassador Ryan Crocker said, citing the 9/11 attacks and World War II as examples of what can happen when Americans recoil.
“It is not a question of the United States not having enough power. It is an issue of the United States not using its power,” Crocker said in a wideranging Denver Post interview in which he laid out challenges Trump will face, starting in the first week of his presidency. A six-time ambassador, Crocker also joined four-time ambassador Chris Hill, now at the University of Denver, speaking publicly this week at a World Denver forum.
Europe and the Middle East have fallen closer to “chaos” than at any time for 100 years, Crocker said. Rather than hunker back in an “America First” posture that discounts the rest of the world, Trump must drive the United States to re-engage as the world leader. A winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Crocker has criticized President Barack Obama for disengaging, which he blames for problems such as Syrian President Bashar Assad staying in power.
“Europe is the most divided it has ever been since World War II. The Middle East is getting worse by the day. If the United States doesn’t lead, nobody leads — and it becomes a free-for-all. We’re seeing that in Europe. I’m very hopeful president-elect Trump is going to take a long, careful look at the world he is inheriting and will conclude the United States is going to have to lead,” he said.
“That doesn’t mean the U.S. should do it all. Absolutely not. But without U.S. leadership, we’re not going to see other nations step up — with the exception of those who are our adversaries. You have Russia. You have Iran — in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. They are stepping forward.”
If it turns out that Russia really tipped the U.S. election, Crocker said, the response should be international, not the U.S. acting alone. “Even though whatever this was was directed at us, it is about the whole world — not only the United States.”
The worst harm Americans endured during the past century happened because the nation ignored foreign problems instead of being actively engaged, according to Crocker. The carnage of 9/11 followed U.S. neglect after Soviet occupiers left Afghanistan in 1989 and al-Qaeda moved in, using Afghanistan as a base to plan and execute the attacks, he said. Similarly, a lack of U.S. involvement in Europe after World War I led to World War II.
“We didn’t play any significant role in the post-World War I political space, didn’t even join the League of Nations, and 20 years later we had World War II,” Crocker said. “But, in the post-World War II era, we did play a role: We fashioned the structures of the international community. And we led it. … We have not seen any return to global conflict.”
Crocker stands out among U.S. diplomats because he repeatedly sought and welcomed assignments to represent the nation under the toughest conditions. He served most recently in Afghanistan. He previously ran the embassies in Iraq, Pakistan, Kuwait, Lebanon and Syria. As a junior diplomat, he served in Beirut during 1983 when a suicide truck bomber blew up the embassy there, killing 63 people including 17 Americans. He helped dig through rubble for survivors.
In Syria, a mob ransacked his
residence while his wife hid in a safe room. In Afghanistan, he endured a lengthy gunbattle in 2011 as insurgents attacked the U.S. compound.
President Bush awarded him the medal of freedom after his work in Iraq. After serving for Obama in Afghanistan, Crocker cited a health problem in retiring. He became a dean at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.
The World Denver forum on Wednesday drew 160 people hungry for inside information on international affairs. Retired ambassador Hill, dean at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies, who followed Crocker in Iraq, echoed Crocker’s call for robust engagement. Hill said Trump must conduct a detailed policy review aimed at honing U.S. international strategy.
“You’ll probably need more than 140 characters,” Hill said.
Among looming challenges requiring tough decisions, Crocker pointed to the following: with North Korea may affect U.S. relations with a rising China, and Pakistan appears unstable, he said. The Iran treaty Trump has criticized, designed to help contain Iran’s nuclear program, may look better once Trump settles into Oval Office decision-making, he said. “The only threat to our national survival would be a nuclear threat. It is important that we all keep things in perspective. There is nuclear. And there is everything else.” The nations appear shakier than at any time since British and French colonial powers drew boundaries, Crocker said. Failing governments opened the door to rival nongovernment forces, including Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The United States must still use military tactics, he said, but urgently needs a strategy for addressing core problems rooted in poor governance. Italy may follow Britain exiting the European Union, a focus of U.S. strategy since World War II, which could lead to wider disintegration. Keeping Europe together is essential, Crocker said. EU discord plays to Russia, he said. “If we want to diminish the chance of a collision over Europe, we need to do what we can to strengthen the European alliance.”
Trade deals, including the TransPacific Partnership, affect more than economics. These are strategically important for national security. And rejecting the TPP, a compact that Trump has opposed, would waste a huge opportunity in Asia, Crocker said. “It is a grouping of countries including the United States and not including China.” The U.S. must back it, he said, referring to a U.S. military leader’s assessment that the pact “is worth several battle groups.”
This is no time to turn inward and ignore the rest of the world, Crocker said.
“We had better take a long hard look and decide where we are going next before we decide to abandon the policy of broad international engagements and leadership by the United States,” he said. “We’d better take a clear-eyed view of the state of the world. … What are we going to do?”
Ryan Crocker, pictured in 2007, says policy “is not a question of the United States not having enough power. It is an issue of the United States not using its power.” Getty Images file