Two months into his most recent Baghdad posting (his third in nearly 30 years), Ryan Crocker still hasn't opened all his airfreight crates. "I've been a little pressed," he dryly explains to NEWSWEEK. When he finally unpacks, though, the U.S. ambassador will take out a battered calendar from 24 years ago and hang it in his office. It was on his office wall in Beirut when a suicide truck bomb destroyed the U.S. Embassy there on April 18, 1983, killing 64 people. Slammed against a wall but not seriously hurt, the young diplomat immediately began clawing barehanded through the rubble, searching for his colleagues. The calendar has traveled with him ever since, bearing the scars of that day: "a little bit of glass, a little bit of blood, a little bit of spilled coffee." His voice gets quieter: "It reminds me of my responsibilities to the mission. And that in diplomacy, as in the military, you're playing for keeps."
Crocker needs no reminders. That is why he and his military counterpart, Gen. David Petraeus, are in Iraq now: to salvage a mission that seems increasingly hopeless. Both men are extraordinarily perceptive, pragmatic and comprehensive thinkers. If they fail, it's hard to imagine who could do better. Crocker's last stint in Iraq was as Coalition Provisional Authority governance director in the summer of 2003. "One of the major problems—and I see it starkly coming back here—is the corrosion that sectarian violence has created and the damage it's done to how people relate to one another," he says. He's not surprised by the decline: although he did not directly oppose the war, in 2002 he helped compile a six-page State Department memo warning that an invasion of Iraq could set off bloodshed between Sunnis and Shiites. Its title: "The Perfect Storm."
Crocker is uniquely qualified to face that storm. A fluent Arabic speaker and former ambassador to Kuwait, Syria, Lebanon and Pakistan, he has witnessed events that most Foreign Service personnel have only read about. In September 1982, the morning after hundreds of Palestinian men, women and children were massacred at Lebanon's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, he dictated a chilling on-scene report before the first journalist arrived. Months later he was digging dead colleagues out of the embassy's ruins. He re-established the U.S. Embassy in Kabul after the fall of the Taliban, and managed the strategically crucial post-9/11 relationship with Pakistan's military strongman, Pervez Musharraf. "My checkered past has taught me a few things," he says. "One of them is respect for other people's reality. Iraq has its own reality, its own institutions, its own way of doing things, certainly its own problems that will have to be solved in Iraqi terms. Understanding why they approach things as they do is pretty important."
He knows Iraq intimately. In the late 1970s, when foreign diplomats were kept under strict surveillance by young Saddam Hussein's regime, Crocker somehow wangled permission to travel the length of the Euphrates River valley. He drove off in a Toyota Land Cruiser, giving lifts to hitchhiking (and talkative) Iraqi soldiers along the way for 10 days until he reached Qaim, on the Syrian border, where horrified authorities detained him for several hours before sending him back down the river. "Ryan takes the trouble to get out and really understand the country he's working in," says one of Crocker's former colleagues, Ambassador David Mack. "He's a no-frills diplomat, very different from the stereotypical ambassador who goes to fancy champagne cocktails." As a young Foreign Service officer studying intensive Arabic, Crocker spent a month with a family of Bedouin shepherds in Jordan's fabled Wadi Rum. "I learned 27 different words for camel," he says. More important, he also learned how the region's tribesmen recall events as vividly as if they happened last week "when actually they date back 300 or 400 years, through the mists of time."
He knows Iran, too; he was posted there back in 1972 and speaks Farsi. He recently held a four-hour meeting with an Iranian delegation in Baghdad, expressing "specific concern about their behavior in Iraq," particularly the flow of explosives, ammunition and support from Iran to militias fighting in Iraq. "Iranians are incredibly polished and capable diplomats," Crocker says. "It helps to be patient with them."
In contrast, acquaintances say he considers Iraqis to be "the toughest bastards in the Middle East." It's a compliment. "Iraqis have always had that reputation, as tough fighters, tough negotiators, ready to take on the world," he says. "You see it in the security forces who will step up to the fight ... engaging in very tough street fights in Baghdad, [and in] political leaders who refuse to throw up their hands and say 'I quit' ... Ultimately, it's that kind of toughness that will bring this country through." The bad news: "There are some real tough guys on the other end."
The challenge now is to get them to stop killing Americans and each other. The idea, Crocker says, is "to reduce the number of people you've got to fight to an absolute minimum" by sorting out the "reconcilables" from the "irreconcilables." Determining which is which will mostly be left to the Iraqi government. Asked by NEWSWEEK if this won't amount to a don't-ask-don't-tell policy for Iraqis with American blood on their hands, he re-plies: "That's your phrase." Still, he agrees it's a "fair supposition" that some Iraqis who fought Americans will receive amnesty: "There are people in Anbar right now who're fighting against Al Qaeda—in cooperation with Iraqi forces and Coalition forces—who six months ago were on the other side."
He gets on well with Petraeus—"a superb soldier," Crocker calls him. They jog together around Camp Victory, about six miles, once a week. (Known for his daily fitness routine, Crocker, who turns 58 this month, has the lean, wiry frame of the marathon runner he is.) The ambassador and the general are a "good fit" together, says Mack: "Petraeus thinks very much like a civilian, and Ryan has a reputation for working well with the military." Crocker grew up in an Air Force family and attended school wherever his father's assignments took him, from Morocco to Canada.
Right now Crocker intends to stay put. He hopes to unpack another prized possession soon: a poster of Iron Maiden's "2 Minutes to Midnight" album. He likes both heavy-metal music and the picture itself. It shows various flags—including that of Iraq—waving above a desolate scene of nuclear devastation. "It's just like the 1983 calendar," he says. "It focuses on where I've been and on the stakes involved. The pressure's on; get it right. The consequences of not getting it right are huge." Nowhere is that more true than in Iraq.