BAGHDAD — Five years ago, as the Bush administration was preparing to invade Iraq, Ryan Crocker and a handful of other State Department officials wrote a six-page memo warning of the possible pitfalls of a U.S.-led attack.
An invasion could "unleash long-repressed sectarian and ethnic tensions," the memo said. It also warned "that the Sunni minority would not easily relinquish power, and that powerful neighbors such as Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia would try to move in to influence events."
It was titled "The Perfect Storm." It was remarkably prescient.
Now Crocker is the American ambassador to Iraq, and it's fallen to him to help quell the tempest. It may be an impossible task, but there's hardly anyone better prepared to do so.
Crocker has done two previous stints in Iraq, arriving for the first time in 1978, the year before Saddam Hussein came to power. He met his wife, Christine, the same year Saddam seized control.
"She's back here with me right now," Crocker said in his office in what was once the deposed leader's Republican Palace. "We're back where we started."
The wall outside his office bears the scars from a recent mortar round or rocket. But Crocker has worked in hostile environments before.
He still carries with him a calendar he salvaged from his office in the U.S. Embassy in Beirut after a car bomb in 1983 hurled his marathon runner's frame against the wall and killed 64 of his colleagues. He helped dig corpses from the rubble with his hands. He reopened the American Embassy in Afghanistan after U.S. forces ousted the Taliban, and he's served as ambassador to Lebanon, Kuwait and Syria, as well as Pakistan, the Islamic world's nuclear-tipped trouble spot and his most recent assignment.
Iraqis say the difference between Crocker and his predecessors in Iraq is stark — and welcome. While his predecessors often either dictated or demanded, Crocker is a diplomat.
And while Iraqis may not like U.S. policy, they respect Crocker, who during his first Iraqi tour managed to drive up the Euphrates River all the way to the Syrian border, picking up hitchhiking Iraqi soldiers en route. He was rewarded for slipping his police-state leash with several hours of detention by Saddam's police in the town of Qaim.
"He wants to treat Iraq like a sovereign nation," said Ahmad Chalabi, a nimble Shiite Muslim politician who was once the darling of Bush administration neoconservatives. "He supports initiatives of the government, he doesn't initiate them."
None of his predecessors had the knowledge or style that Crocker brings to the job.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, the first American designated to remake Iraq after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, had no Middle East experience except for a relief operation he ran in Kurdistan in 1991. He lasted two months, until then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair's envoy to Baghdad, John Sawars, sent a cable to London calling Iraq "an unbelievable mess" and labeling Garner and his team "well meaning but out of their depth."
L. Paul Bremer III, a self-described "bedrock Republican," also had no experience in Iraq and couldn't speak Arabic. With only two weeks to prepare, he made what everyone now admits were two drastic mistakes that the U.S. is still trying to correct: banning a huge number of Baath party members from government jobs and disbanding Iraq's army.
John D. Negroponte, the first person to carry the title of U.S. ambassador to post-Saddam Iraq, had a long career as a diplomat, but little preparation for Iraq. During his tenure, the Interior Ministry was heavily infiltrated by the Badr Organization, the Shiite militia linked to the powerful Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. The militia was accused of assassinating former Baathists.
Zalmay Khalilzad, Crocker's immediate predecessor, was a Sunni largely disliked by Iraq's Shiite politicians, who complained that the "Zal show" inserted itself into Iraqi politics and skirted Iraqi institutions. "Zalmay was a person with an ideology," said Sami al Askari, a top adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. "He was behaving as a political player . . . . Crocker is more of a diplomat."
Where previous U.S. ambassadors often went around official channels and dealt with Iraqi politicians directly, Crocker has been careful to respect institutions, said Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. "I think he's the person who would succeed here," Zebari said.
Crocker also has been working to remake the embassy staff. One of his first memos to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice complained that embassy workers were too inexperienced for what should be the most important diplomatic posting in the world.
Since then, he's brought in at least four fellow ambassadors: The former ambassador to Greece is in charge of the embassy's economic affairs office; the former ambassador to Albania runs the political affairs office; the former ambassador to Bangladesh is Crocker's deputy; and the former ambassador to Uzbekistan is coordinating U.S. efforts in Iraq's provinces.
Phil Reeker, Crocker's public affairs counselor, is the former No. 2 diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Budapest.
"For three or four years we haven't had our best and our brightest on the field," said one senior military officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. "If you compare the staffs from then and now, I think we're light years ahead."
The result is a more orderly approach, the officer said.
"Khalilzad was more of the dealmaker, if you will. He could fit in very well in the Arab culture, work the phones and personal contacts late into the evening to move an issue along. But he pretty much tackled issues one at a time," the officer said. "Ambassador Crocker has structured systems. He's professional in his relationships with the Iraqis."
Crocker keeps in close touch with his military counterpart, Army Gen. David Petraeus. Every Sunday, Crocker and Petraeus, a fitness fanatic, run together and discuss the future of Iraq. At least five other times during the week, the two discuss how to proceed.
Crocker recognizes that he faces a difficult path. The Iraqis aren't even close to passing laws that the U.S. Congress has said they must pass if the U.S. is to remain supportive. Crocker and Petraeus must assess Iraq's progress toward those goals by mid-September.
"This is clearly a period when Iraqis need to assert a national vision and a national identity," Crocker said.
But Crocker also believes that the U.S. must show patience. "For a lot of Americans, after four years, it's like we're halfway through the third reel of a three-reel movie," he said. "For Iraqis, it's still the first half of the first reel of a five-reel movie."
According to a U.S. Embassy official close to Crocker, the ambassador, now 58, had intended to retire at the end of his assignment in Pakistan. Crocker, sipping coffee in his office recently, didn't talk about that. Instead, he talked about duty when the call to move to Baghdad came.
"A basic principle all my life has been that when you are called on, you salute and step forward. It is a privilege to serve," he said.
Crocker has some warm memories of his first tour in Iraq nearly three decades ago. He lived in the neighborhood of Karrada in central Baghdad. He shopped in what was then upscale Mansour. He picked up sweets along Abu Nuwas Street along the Tigris River and chatted with the vendors in fluent Arabic.
All of that's off limits to him now. Karrada is increasingly the site of car bombings. Mansour is the scene of kidnappings; many of its shops are closed. Abu Nuwas is lined with blast walls and razor wire. Most of the restaurants, famous for their salty grilled carp, are closed.
Crocker remembers his shock when he revisited those areas shortly after his return in March.
"Where were the people? Just whole areas had been deserted," he said. "That was quite a jolt coming back. The encouraging thing that I found was again the people. Iraqis are known throughout the region as being the toughest guys on the block, and you can see that, I can see that, right away."
Crocker also remembers the fear that marked his first tour. He recalled that as a young diplomat, he'd leave home every morning at about the same time as his neighbor. But the Iraqi man, who was married to a German woman, never acknowledged him.
Then as he roamed around his garden one morning, Crocker heard a whisper over the low wall that separated their homes.
"'I know you think I'm terribly rude,'" Crocker recalled his neighbor saying. " 'That's not it at all. We're both watched. My wife is German, and I simply can't afford ever to be seen having anything to do with you. I could be arrested.' "
That kind of fear still drives Iraqis, Crocker said.
"Compromises are hard to make, not because people are being willfully difficult," Crocker said. "There still is a lot of fear over whether those compromises will in some way make a particular community or group or region vulnerable.
"I think it's hard for a lot of Americans to understand that the Shiites, for example, as Iraq's clear majority, are still a community that has considerable fear that the Baath will come back, even with Saddam's death . . . . Fourteen hundred years of being the underdog is not a process you reverse in one year or in four."
Crocker still has hope that the risk of failure will drive Iraqi politicians to compromise with one another. "Nothing so concentrates the mind as the prospect of hanging," he said. But even if compromise seems a long way off, the U.S. should think carefully before leaving.
"We just can't switch the channel on this," he said. "The program goes on whether we are here or not. The decisions that we took early on have consequences."
He recalled the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which gave birth to Hezbollah, which is widely believed to be responsible for the 1983 embassy bombing that Crocker survived.
"What was born in '82 is still with us today, Hezbollah . . . so you've got to think about long-term consequences."
It remains to be seen, however, whether even a workaholic who's fluent in Arabic, knows the landscape and is immune to the wishful thinking that launched America into Iraq, can undo four years of missed opportunities and blunders.
"We will stay here as long as I believe we can make a difference in how Iraq moves forward," Crocker said.