Former Ambassador to Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon, Ryan Crocker, was my guest in hour two of today’s show.
HH: So pleased to welcome to the program for the first time Ambassador Ryan Crocker. Ambassador Crocker has served as our ambassador to Afghanistan, or ambassador to Iraq, our ambassador to Pakistan, our ambassador to Syria, and our ambassador to Kuwait and to Lebanon. He is now the dean of the Texas A&M University’s George Bush School of Government and Public Service. A real honor to speak with you, Mr. Ambassador, welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show.
RC: Hugh, thanks, glad to be on.
HH: I want to begin with David Kirkpatrick today in the New York Times. He’s replaced John Fisher Burns as sort of the go-to reporter on the ground. And he writes today that after six weeks of American air strikes, the Iraqi Government’s forces have scarcely budged Sunni extremists of the Islamic State from their hold on more than a quarter of the country in part because many critical Sunni tribes remain on the sidelines. And he continues, the government struggles on the battlefield as the absence of the resistance of many of the Sunni Muslim tribes that officials in Baghdad and Washington hope will play a decisive role in the course of the fight. Mr. Ambassador, you worked with a lot of those tribes, and a lot of those sheiks. What’s it going to take to get them into this battle?
RC: Well, Hugh, they already are in the battle. Out in the province of Anbar, Western Iraq, the Sunni tribes, particularly the Dulaim have been in the fight since the spring. And they are the main force holding onto the provincial capital of Ramadi against ISIS. In the north around Mosul, it’s a somewhat different story. But you know, I do talk to these folks. I can tell you that the Sunnis up in Mosul have lost a huge amount at the hands of ISIS – property, lives, possessions. What they are looking for us to do is demonstrate that we really are all in on this, and we are going to stay all in. You know, for us, it’s will we or won’t we, how much is it going to cost and so forth. For them, it’s their lives. And just as we saw in 2007 with the awakening of Sunni tribes who turned against al Qaeda, they did it because they knew we had their backs. And I don’t think we’re quite there, yet in Iraq.
HH: Over the weekend, a story spread, General Conway, former Marine Corps commandant, was quoted as saying that there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that President Obama’s plan succeeds. Do you agree with that assessment as that plan is currently in place?
RC: What the President has also said is this is going to be a multiyear endeavor. I testified on Friday in front of the House Intelligence Committee, and I said in my testimony it’s a good start. However, it is going to have to evolve as circumstances evolve. I don’t think he should have taken combat troops off the table right up front. You know, I was with General Mattis, our former commander of Central Command, and another great Marine four-star, retired. It’s hard to see if our goal is to degrade and defeat Islamic State how we’re going to do that just from the air.
HH: In terms of the number of American troops that would have to be committed in the area on the ground, in whatever capacity, as advisors or as special forces, what sort of number do you and General Mattis and General Petraeus talk about when that’s referred to, because the American people have really no idea of scale, because it’s not been discussed openly.
RC: Well, we have well over a thousand military in Iraq right now. And we have partners on the ground. I would like to see us move immediately to embed Special Forces advisors with loyal Iraqi Army units, and there loyal Iraqi Army units, with the Kurds, and with the Sunni tribes, particularly in the west. And then we simply see where we go from there. You know, I don’t know what the next five steps are going to look like. We just have to be committed to taking them as the situation evolves, as we learn more of what local capabilities are and will is on the ground. And then we’ve got to get started in Syria. You know, I keep praying every morning I’m going to wake up to news that we have launched massive air strikes against ISIS in Syria, because here’s another way we’re not going to win this. If ISIS keeps a safe haven in Syria, there is no way we’re going to defeat them, and we’re probably not even going to degrade them very much. So we just have to get on with this.
HH: Mr. Ambassador, I strongly supported that last year when it was on the table. Many people who did not pushed back and said we lack the ability to distinguish between the various groups opposing the Assad regime. You’ve been an ambassador in Syria, you’ve been ambassador in every country in the region. Do you believe we have the ability to distinguish between those even conservative Muslim insurgents and those that would be terrorist and IS-affiliated?
RC: Right now, I don’t think we do, which is another reason we’ve got to get on, I think, with an intensive air campaign to open up enough space, push ISIS back far enough, to create conditions in which we can begin to send Special Forces advisors into Syria under conditions of reasonable security to start making these on the ground assessments. That’s exactly what we did in Iraq after the fall of Mosul. We need to do something similar in Syria. Until we do, we really are not going to know what’s going on.
HH: From your conversations with your old colleagues in Kurdistan, are we doing enough to arm the Peshmerga and to support our longtime allies in that region?
RC: Hugh, it’s a difficult situation. The Peshmerga is, as anyone who served out there knows, are a very light infantry, and organizationally, they fight at the small unit level, you know, basically platoon. So we should not think that you can take a force like this and give them heavy weapons and ask them to organize into brigade-sized formations and it’s going to work. You know, they’re formidable when they fight on their own territory, when they’re up in their own mountains. But we’re asking them to do something different, not asking, I mean, they’re doing it on their own, which is fight ISIS in the flatlands. That’s not how they’re structured. And we’re not going to change that structure overnight. We just have to accept the reality, we need to continue to support them. I don’t think ISIS is going to go after them north of the green line into Kurdistan proper. But there’s only so much we can expect from, again, a small unit, lightly armed infantry force against an organization that has very heavy weapons. Look, Senator Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Intel Committee, said it pretty well. It takes an army to beat an army.
HH: What degree of sophistication, Mr. Ambassador, do you think the IS have in terms of their ability to command large formations and conduct sophisticated operations across many different fronts?
RC: You know, they have limitations. We have to figure out what those are and exploit them. But they are a formidable opponent, because they have been joined by, in addition to very hardened al Qaeda fighters, including their leader, by former officers of Saddam’s regime. It is a marriage of convenience. I don’t know how long it will last, but you know, as you look at the battlefront in Northern Iraq, and when you see battalion and larger size maneuvers, those are organized and commanded, as far as I can understand it, not necessarily by Islamic State fighters, but by former Saddam commanders who know what they’re doing.
HH: We have a minute to the break, Mr. Ambassador. Given the industrial base as you know it exists in Mosul and the other areas now under ISIS control, what degree of threat do you think there is of major terrorist activity against the United States within our borders as a result of this new capacity and these new numbers and this new financing?
RC: Well, Hugh, I’ve said before, I mean, this is al Qaeda version 6.0 – you know, more men, more experienced, more arms, more money, several thousand Western passports. And they are millennial in their outlook. They want it all, and we would be delusional if we did not think, now that they have territory they control, that they’re not planning attacks on the U.S.
HH: On an ongoing and a sophisticated basis, something to worry about?
HH: I’ll be right back with Ambassador Ryan Crocker. I want to talk to him about Syria and about the destabilizing effect of this in Turkey, in Lebanon, and in Jordan when we come back.
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HH: Mr. Ambassador, there are lots of potentials out there, and it all depends on the inputs we put in and the response from jihadists around the world. And I mentioned the instability in Jordan and in Lebanon and Turkey. Would you give us your spectrum of outcomes here, from the best case that we can hope for over the next few years to the worst case that you can imagine over the next few years?
RC: Hugh, the best case is, again, that we simply lead, and we make it clear to allies and adversaries alike that we are in this for the long run, and we will do what it takes. In Iraq, that may be as much political as military. The situation that allowed the Islamic State to take over huge swaths of territory in the north came about in part because we had politically disengaged. Well, now we’re reengaged. And we have to stay that way. The Iraqis politically cannot do this on their own. We need to continue to work with them and press them on an inclusive government. They have still got to make decisions on a defense and interior minister, pretty key positions given their circumstances. We have got to be right there with them. If we are, I think they are capable of producing and operating a government that will be inclusive, that will bring Kurd, Shia and Sunnis together in a fight against a common enemy. But it takes our engagement and our leadership.
HH: And what’s the worst case?
RC: The worst case is that we don’t step up, that we’re not prepared to provide the commitment and the resources, because without that, there is no coalition. It’ll just evaporate. And you know, we’ve seen what the Islamic State has been doing over just the last few days. They’re basically overrunning Syrian Kurdistan, as well as a number of other villages in Northern Syria. They will keep moving. And the next place they’re going to move will be either towards Saudi Arabia. There’s nothing but sand between them and the Saudi border, or toward Jordan, where the same situation prevails. And as you note, Jordan is a very fragile state.
HH: Go ahead.
RC: Go ahead.
HH: Well, is this, does this mean that Saudi Arabia can be expected to commit its front line forces to stopping them, and the Jordanian Army as well, because if that’s where they’re headed, shouldn’t these regular army groups be committed to the ground as well?
RC: And I have no doubt that if and when Islamic State tries to cross those borders, both Saudi Arabia and Jordan will meet them with force. How well that will work without us, I don’t know.
HH: What about the role being played or not played by Turkey right now, Mr. Ambassador? You have to have dealt with the Turkish government for years in all of these different states, and I am simply puzzled. They’re a NATO ally with a porous border, and he doesn’t seem, the government does not seem all that interested in joining the rhetorical fight, much less the real one.
RC: Again, a complicated case. I hope we are heavily engaged with the Turkish government at the highest levels, because again, if they think that they can somehow come to arrangements with the Islamic State that are going to keep them safe, they’re wrong. They got their 45 hostages back. We can all be glad about that. But there was a deal cut. And I don’t know what it was, but I do know that you don’t rescue everybody unscathed through some kind of paramilitary operation and have them show up in clean and pressed clothes when they get back to Ankara. There was a deal with the Islamic State. Now whether that commits Turkey to not taking action against them, or whether it frees Turkey to be able to join a broader coalition remains to be seen, and it will depend a lot upon how much we put into this.
HH: Mr. Ambassador, when you left government, you had a secretary of State in Rice, and a Defense in Gates, and you have in the field General McChrystal and Mattis and Allen and Petraeus. It was quite a lot of talent at work on behalf of the United States in 2008-2009-2010. And a lot of people have retired and left for a variety of reasons. Are we thin at the top when it comes to the talent necessary to pull off this incredibly complex recovery mission?
RC: Well, actually, I left government twice, Hugh. I failed retirement the first time and went back to Afghanistan where there was another extraordinary secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and a great secretary of Defense in Leon Panetta. Right now, you’ve got Secretary John Kerry at State, and you’ve got Chuck Hagel at Defense.
HH: Secretary Hagel, yeah.
RC: It doesn’t get any better at the top policy level. I’ve known them both for years. They know the world from their time on the Foreign Relations Committee. And we’ve got great generals. I was in D.C. last week. I saw Marty Dempsey, with whom I served also in Iraq. Now you couldn’t ask for a better chairman at a tougher time. Lloyd Austin, who commands Central Command, that has overall responsibility for this fight, was the core commander with me in Iraq. So we’ve got a pretty good bench.
HH: So it just comes down to the White House and whether the President commits us. And do you think the Vice President is helping or hurting in that regard? He’s always had unusual views on Iraq.
RC: So they say.
RC: I’ve know the Vice President for many years and have great respect for him. I was struck by his comments a few days ago when he was asked about General Dempsey’s testimony. It certainly sounded to me like the Vice President was leaving the door open for the kind of evolving policy and commitment that we’re going to need to get this done.
HH: Last quest, last week, former President Bush, who has said nothing critical of President Obama in an admirable display of how former presidents ought to act, was in Cleveland at the Cuyahoga Community College, and he said as close to a criticism as he’s come to, that a vacuum has developed, and it’s being filled. Was that his effort to nudge President Obama to more, faster, quicker?
RC: You know, I’ve worked for both presidents. I admire them both. You know, I frankly think that President Bush was simply stating a fact. If we’re not there, someone else is going to be. And it is probably going to be someone else we don’t like very much. Now I know the American people are tired. Believe me, I spent seven years between Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan after 9/11. I got tired, too. But you don’t win a war by leaving a battlefield. We have got to stay engaged and prevent that vacuum.
HH: Ambassador Ryan Crocker, thanks so much for spending a half hour with us. I very, very much appreciate it, an honor to talk to you.
End of interview.