Ambassador Ryan Crocker

The former ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait, and Lebanon joined the Council for a lunch on international leadership

January 30, 2019
BY Anthony Smith
Ambassador Ryan Crocker

On a Thursday afternoon, former United States Ambassador Ryan Crocker joined members of the NationSwell Council to discuss America’s role in an increasingly turbulent world. And though he was clear about the challenges that lie ahead, Crocker – who spent almost forty years in the Foreign Service – still believes that the United States must play a leading role on the tumultuous international stage.

In his decades serving as ambassador to six different nations and across four presidential administrations in both major parties, Crocker saw the United States use its powers to end wars and push for human rights. That’s why, despite skepticism from right-leaning and left-leaning pundits, the former ambassador contends that America can project its power in ways that could improve the world through forceful foreign policy.

Bucking political orthodoxy, Crocker told Council members that he personally advocates for a long-term presence in Afghanistan – a nation to which he served as ambassador under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. But in order to do that, Crocker maintained that any president would need the support of the American public.

“You do what the last 3 presidents didn’t really do,” Crocker told the Council. “Make the case publicly; tell the American people why we’re still there 17 years later.”

The former ambassador added, “The achievements of women in Afghanistan are hard to imagine given the country’s history.” And according to him, those achievements would not have been possible without the United States’ invasion and continued presence in the nation.

“Afghanistan hurtled from the 13th century to the 16th century quickly,” he said. “It has always relied on external support. We are getting the investment down to a manageable long term level… It’s peanuts compared to the cost of [another] 9/11.”

And though the former ambassador to Syria offered tepid praise of President Donald Trump’s handling of the Syrian civil war, he also criticized the so-called “red line” policy that informs American intervention in the conflict.

“The chemical weapons thing just drives me nuts,” Crocker said. “The red line that Obama didn’t honor and Trump did by dropping missiles — how was that interpreted in Syria? ‘You go ahead and kill all the Syrians you want, but don’t use chemical weapons.’ But you can buy bombs from us!”

Drawing on his experience, he offered an alternative response.

“All they needed to say was, ‘Chemical weapons aren’t unique to this war,” he said. “They’ve been prohibited since 1920 for good reason. They should not be used for any reason, and we’re prepared to stick up for it.”

But that criticism was part-and-parcel of a much larger issue: When it comes to Damascus, neither Obama nor Trump really knows what to do, Crocker claimed.

“There’s strong continuity between the Obama and Trump administrations,” Crocker said. “That’s the good news. It’s also the bad news. Neither have a clue about what we could do to make [Syria] better.”

He added, “I trust [Defense Secretary] James Mattis, but… at a strategic level we’re not thinking long and hard enough about why we’re keeping troops there.”

The premium Crocker places on strong continuity is, perhaps, part of why he was troubled by the op-ed in the New York Times written by an anonymous senior official in Trump’s administration. In that op-ed, the writer alleges that she or he, joined by other senior officials in the White House, “are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.”

“Whatever we might think about the election, he’s our president.” Crocker said of the op-ed. “We damn well better hope he succeeds, because if he doesn’t we all fail.”

You make me feel good about where we’re going as a country — Ryan Crocker
United States Ambassador

When asked whether the Trump administration’s foreign policy was in any way an improvement on Obama’s, Crocker turned the Council’s attention towards the Korean peninsula,.

“It’s not that Trump did something Obama didn’t, but he did something no American president ever did,” Crocker said of the historic summit between Trump and DPRK leader Kim Jong-un. “Anything that gets the hermit out of the kingdom and engages him with the rest of the world is a net good. And Trump did that.”

And while the former ambassador is unsure about whether North Korean denuclearization will ever happen, he praised the Trump administration — joined by South Korean President Ban Ki-moon — for making “amazing steps” towards stopping the Doomsday clock.

Despite an increasingly craggy geopolitical landscape, the former ambassador does see a tremendous bright spot: America’s problem-solvers and changemakers, like the NationSwell Council members gathered in the room.

“You make me optimistic about the future,” he told the Council, later adding, “You make me feel good about where we’re going as a country.”

Crocker concluded by citing Meghan McCain’s powerful remarks at the funeral service for her father, the late Senator John McCain: “For all the horrible things that have happened in this country, Meghan McCain was right. America is great. It doesn’t need to be made great again.”


Additional reporting by Hallie Steiner. 

Former Ambassador Ryan Crocker’s comments have been lightly edited for clarity.