Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Return of the Professionals


It’s odd to watch President Bush’s administration quietly recall to service people who are actually experts on the Middle East—a small group who can’t even be called Cassandras, so little were their advice and predictions about the Iraq war heeded.

Last night “Diplomat Tapped to Head Iraq Reconstruction” told the story of Timothy M. Carney, who headed Iraq’s Ministry of Industry and Minerals for two months in 2003 before deciding that then-Ambassador Paul Bremer’s nickel-and-dime approach to economic reconstruction doomed his mission. Carney resigned and headed home, firing off warnings that the administration ignored.

Now it looks like another old pro, Ryan Crocker, has been tapped as the newest U.S. ambassador to Baghdad. (He replaces Zalmay Khalilzad, scheduled to become neocon-in-residence as U.S. ambassador to the UN.) Crocker, the current U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, speaks Persian and Arabic and has been a diplomat long enough to have had at least one U.S. embassy (in Beirut) blown out from under him.

Crocker is the first career foreign service officer and Arabist to take the Baghdad job, which may put him at a disadvantage in persuading the administration on policy. The three previous U.S. envoys -- Khalilzad, Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte and Coalition Provisional Authority chief L. Paul Bremer -- had all been political appointees who had a direct line into the White House.

"It's going to be a terrible job," says former ambassador to Lebanon Robert Dillon, who was also in the [Beirut] embassy when it blew up. "As a career guy, he's going to be under a lot of pressure and I'm not sure how much support he'll get in Washington."

But diplomats and military officers who have served with him say Crocker, who knows Iraq's tribes as well as its Arabic dialect, was the only realistic choice to deal with the country's labyrinthine politics.

Given the administration’s “surge” plan, which is unpopular in both the U.S. and Iraq, not having a direct line to the White House may actually be a blessing, enabling these two diplomats and others to distance themselves from policymaking and actually work on improving the situation in Iraq.

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