London, Asharq Al-Awsat- As President Barack Obama’s administration comes to grips with all the demanding foreign policy issues facing Washington, one man who has been instrumental in handling one of the key issues, Iraq, is getting ready to hand over the mantle. In two weeks, Ambassador Ryan Crocker will leave Iraq after deciding to retire with the end of President George Bush’s term. Having served in some of the toughest capitals for American diplomats, like Beirut and Islamabad, Crocker is leaving Iraq in a better shape than he found it when he became Ambassador in March 2007. He gave the following ‘farewell interview’ by phone from his office in Baghdad to Asharq Al-Awsat:
(Asharq Al-Awsat) President Obama stated that he wishes to withdraw American troops within 16 months of taking office. Is that now official US policy?
(Crocker) You may have seen a statement from the White House a few days ago, I was very privileged to have the opportunity to speak with President Obama during his first full day in the White House along with General Odierno, via video conference in Baghdad, and we gave the President our assessment of how things are going here and as the President said in his statement, he is committed to a responsible withdrawal from Iraq and he has asked the planners to develop options and a way forward. So that’s exactly where we are.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) When do you expect the planners to submit their plan for a way forward, is it a matter of days or weeks?
(Crocker) I think this is going to be a process of careful consultation, consideration and I really couldn’t put a timeline to it. The President has been saying, he said it after our conversation and he has been saying it for some time that he is committed to responsible withdrawal, with an emphasis on withdrawal.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) How important are the SOFA and Strategic Framework Agreements are in charting the way forward in American-Iraqi relations?
(Crocker) I think they are both extremely important agreements, and with the first of the year, something very important happened. Iraq was no longer subject to Chapter 7 UN resolutions as it has been since 2003, and these agreements now define and shape our bi-lateral relationship. The focus has been on the security agreement, understandably so, and we are committed to full and open implementation of that agreement and as we approach the end of the first month I think that is proceeding extremely well. The Strategic Framework Agreement though I think is the really important document because it shapes and defines the US-Iraqi relationship well onto the future and in all areas: security, economy, energy, services, IT, education, culture, scientific cooperation, and rule of law. We have established our joint coordinating committees in those areas and we have had an initial meeting of the Higher Coordinating Committee before the Bush administration left office, chaired by Prime Minister Maliki and Secretary Rice and we are moving ahead in implementation there too. I think it is literally the framework for a close, cooperative, mutually-beneficial relationship in all of these fields as we move forward. And it is timely, because security has improved, and continues to improve and increasingly our emphasis is going to be in these other areas.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) So the committees have been formed? There had been reports about delays in establishing them.
(Crocker) Yes, we have worked out our membership, the Iraqis have done the same and informal discussions have been underway in all of these areas.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Security has been seen as the most important role of Iraqi-American relations. There has been some weariness on the part of some Iraqis that as the troops are withdrawn; Iraq becomes less important on America’s agenda, and especially with more focus on Afghanistan. Is that the case, or will Iraq continue to be an important part of America’s foreign policy?
(Crocker) Yes indeed, that’s what we were just talking about and is part of the importance of the Strategic Agreement. Iraq is an extremely important country in this region and in the international community and it will be a very important focus of US policy going forward. There is simply no question about that. Iraq sits at the centre of the Middle East and for better or for worse, what happens in Iraq and how Iraq positions itself vis-à-vis its neighbours and beyond, makes a major difference. We are now in a period where I think that position is going to be very much better and we have obviously got a strong interest in not just maintaining that relationship but building it through the Strategic Framework Agreement.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) In your assessment, are Iraqi forces ready to control the country and especially with the American troops withdrawing from the cities by the summer?
(Crocker) Well of course the Iraqi forces are already in control of a number of Iraqi cities and they are doing a superb job of maintaining order and keeping the peace. In many of these cities and provinces US forces are not present at all, even in a support role. So not only can they do it, they already are doing it. And I am very confident based on what I have seen of quality and quantity of Iraqi security forces that they will be quite capable of assuming full control as envisioned in the security agreement by mid-2009.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Is there still a danger of a precipitous withdrawal?
(Crocker) I just don’t think that is going to happen. Again, the President has spoken clearly about a responsible withdrawal, so I just don’t see the likelihood at all of a precipitous withdrawal. That would clearly be a very dangerous and potentially destabilising thing but also very unlikely thing.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) How important are Saturday’s provincial elections so that all Iraqi citizens feel they are represented by their government?
(Crocker) Well the elections clearly are very important for Iraq’s democratic development. In a new democracy, the second round of elections and this will of course be Iraq’s second provincial election, is as important as the first because this cements and establishes a democracy. I think these elections will be important in allowing the Iraqi people to express their own views and elections are how in democracies the contest for power is resolved. So lots of speculation on which parties have the upper hand and in which place. The people of Iraq will determine that and all of us will see come Saturday.
I would emphasise that obviously it is very important that these elections be and be seen to be, especially by the Iraqi people, as free, fair, legitimate and credible. And I know that the Iraqi High Electoral Commission supported by the United Nations has been working extremely hard to see that all the preparations are in place for a good election.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Last week you said that it is important that the elections are fair and free but that they would not be perfect. What does that mean, an imperfect election?
(Crocker) I think that there are clearly going to be some issues, its almost inevitable, whether its security issues, I expect there will be complaints because there are always complaints as happened in the last election, so you know what I mean is that it isn’t going to be a perfect election, very few elections are, if you recall the US elections in 2000. But I think it is going to be a good election and certainly the preparations are in place to see that it is.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Moving on, I wanted to ask you about Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki. How would you assess PM Maliki?
(Crocker) Well of course that’s for the Iraqi people and their representatives to assess because he is a democratically-chosen leader. But it has been my privilege to work with him and other Iraqi leaders over the last two years I have been here. He clearly has taken a number of difficult and I would say courageous decision, in Basra for example last year, to move forward to take on militias and assert state control. So, again, not my place to make assessments but it has been a privilege to work with him and with Iraq’s other leaders. They are all people of real courage, real determination.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Recently we have been hearing reports of dictatorial powers targeted at Prime Minister Al-Maliki, how do you respond to those accusations especially when there were works on the separation of power and checks and balances on the country?
(Crocker) That is the important point, Iraq has a constitution, the constitution has established institutions and it has established checks and balances. The council of representatives has broad responsibilities, control of the budget, and an oversight role over the executive and I think it is the constitution and these institutions that are the guarantees for all Iraqis that the days of dictatorship here are over. I would just give you one small example; the two agreements negotiated under the American system were negotiated as Executive Agreements, meaning that the President has the authority to sign the agreements without taking them to the senate for ratification. In the Iraqi system, the Prime Minister could not do that; he had to take those agreements to the Council of Representatives. I offer that as one small example of constitutional limitations on the power of any single part of the government.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) How much of a problem is the lack of trust between the Iraqi central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan regional government in Arbil?
(Crocker) Well it’s important for all of us to remember how much Iraq has been through, how much all elements of this country have suffered under the Saddam years, Sunni, Shiaa and Kurds. Saddam Hussein brutalised the society, murdered his own people and has left a legacy of fear. You don’t get over that in a couple of years particularly when you are trying to build a new state in which the authorities among the different governments, federal, regional and provincial are still being worked out. So I don’t find it surprising that there is still a strong sense of fear out there, I see it on the part of all communities, the Kurds certainly, also the Sunnis but even the Shiaa as the largest community, as well as the minorities. What I do think is important is for all political leaders to appreciate that everybody has suffered, everybody has concerns and to commit themselves to working through these issues in a constructive and practical way. That is what I think in the fall and I expect we will see again after the elections are over. The meetings among the five principle parties, as well as the Executive council, to talk about security, to talk about power sharing, to talk about the economy including hydrocarbons. These issues are all on the table, they have been discussed, and I think they will further be discussed and that is the way forward.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What are the main challenges facing Iraq now?
(Crocker) Well Iraq has registered enormous achievements, particularly over the last year and a half to two years. It also faces considerable challenges and we were just talking about one of them. What again are the responsibilities and authorities at each level of government, they will need to work through that. There will be the challenge of disputed internal boundaries. And again another legacy of the Saddam era which he literally redrew Iraq’s administrative map to punish populations so they will have to work through that problem. There is the issue of the rule of law, Iraq as Iraqi government officials openly acknowledge has a major problem with corruption and that has to be addressed because it is enormously damaging to economic development and to public confidence. And there are challenges in the rule of law more broadly that very courageous Iraqis are working on. More than 35 judges have been assassinated in Iraq since 2004 in an effort to intimidate the judiciary into powerlessness. It hasn’t worked, they keep going. So while there are challenges in the rule of law, as there are in other areas, based on what we have seen, Iraqi determination, commitment, courage and capability in registering the achievements so far, I think they will be able to deal with these challenges.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Turning to Iran, how would you characterise Iran’s role in Iraq today?
(Crocker) Well again, that’s a question best addressed to the Iraqis. But as we look at where we are right now, the Iranians need to think long and hard about the relationship they want with Iraq. They are neighbours, they will always be neighbours and they are neighbours with a difficult and very bitter history, most notably the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. Clearly it is not in the interest of either country to see the relationship move back in that direction, Iraqis certainly don’t want that, obviously neither do Iranians. But I think it is therefore important that the Iranians take a long term view because some of the things they have done, their support for militias, have created a lot of bitterness in Iraq. We saw that in the spring when the government took on Jaish al-Mahdi, clearly Jaish al-Mahdi was supported by Iran. All Iraqis supported the government in that and it clearly damaged Iran’s reputation in this country. Those kinds of actions build a new legacy of bitterness. I think, its not for me to give advice to the Iranian government, but this region need security and stability and that means its needs decisions on the part of governments and leaders to deal in a professional and open manner with their neighbours and that is unfortunately not how Iran has conducted itself in Iraq.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) The US has provided a pivotal role in facilitating Arab relations with Iraq; many Arab countries hesitated in establishing relations with Iraq. Do you think the US needs to continue in that role?
(Crocker) This is clearly a matter for Iraq and its Arab neighbours. We are pleased that Arabs are stepping forward, establishing embassies, visits back and forth, because as everybody in this region knows, Iraq is a major power in the region. It is a multi-ethnic state, but it is also a founding member of the Arab league and it has played a major role in Arab affairs for decades, often a very negative role under Saddam. So I think it is very much in the interest of Iraq and its Arab neighbours to build a new set of relations that make Iraq and anchor of stability in the region rather than a source of instability. This is the time to do it. I hope to see a continued deepening and widening of Iraq’s Arab relations.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) As you wrap up your time in Iraq, what is your advice to your successor?
(Crocker) I think it is important to exercise strategic patience, to recognize that the new Iraq will be a long time in developing, that one cannot expect miracles overnight, that what we need to do going forward is to build stage-by-stage a long-term lasting relationship that the Iraqi, as well as the American people, can support. And that can take a lot of what I call strategic patience. I would also say that it is very important for us to listen to the Iraqis and to understand what they have experience and how they look at the region and the world. As I have said, all Iraqis have suffered, hugely under Saddam and they have suffered subsequently as violence spiraled up in 2006/2007. We as Americans need to be aware of that, need to understand the experiences Iraqis have been through and we need to listen. We are an energetic people, and we always think we have lots of good ideas and often we do, but a touch of modesty and humility in dealing with a country and people here in Iraq that has a millennial civilization that as a young country is hard for us to even imagine, but also to understand and appreciate what they have been through as they move to a new and better future.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Do you have regrets what you have done in Iraq, is there anything you would have done differently?
(Crocker) There are always things that could have been done better, there is no question. But I do think over the last couple of years that things have gone pretty well, not that I take credit for it, credit goes first and foremost to the Iraqi people who did some incredibly brave things in deciding to stand up to terrorism and sectarian violence. But I do think the ‘surge’ as we call it, was absolutely a critical factor in enabling that. It gave Iraqis confidence, Iraqi security forces, the Iraqi government but most importantly the Iraqi people themselves that confidence that the United States was not backing out in the face of set backs and spiraling violence. We were stepping forward to help secure the population and that decision by President Bush is what has led to the achievements Iraqis have registered since. In almost every area I would have to say, I wish I had done more or better because against these challenges there is always a way to do more and I am sure my successor will be going to look for ways to do just do that.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What would you say is President Bush’s legacy in Iraq is? I know it’s hard to say what America’s legacy is as the situation is still ongoing, but what about President Bush’s legacy now that he has left office?
(Crocker) Well again, I think at this juncture it is hard to talk about legacies for anyone in Iraq, because this is still very much an ongoing story. As Iraq defines and redefines itself, this process is going to go on for years, but I would go back to what I said, I think the surge was absolutely critical, it was the turning point literally from a vicious circle to a virtuous circle in which one positive development reinforced another, and so on until we are where we are today. The surge was President Bush’s decision; he took it in the face of strong public opinion against it in the United States and even against some of his advisors. It was a courageous decision and it was the right one. So I would not say that becomes a legacy per se in an ongoing story but it was a critical decision.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What about your plans for the future – how do you envision your future after so many years and achievements in the State Department?
(Crocker) Well my current plan is not to have a current plan. It’s true, the last couple of years have been extremely intense and demanding. I just need some time to go back to the United States and think about what comes next. I will go out West where I am from, my wife and I are building a house and we will think about what comes next.