Ryan Crocker ’71 remembers touring a destroyed southwest suburb of Baghdad in 2007 that looked more like Berlin in 1945 and seeing shell-shocked people afraid to get medical care for fear of what might happen to them at police checkpoints through which they would need to pass. The then-U.S. ambassador to Iraq returned to his office put his head on his desk and thought, “How did I get into this and how am I going to get out?”
But just as clearly, he remembers “aha” moments and experiences from his days as a Whitman student, turning points that ultimately led him to a 38-year Foreign Service career.
On April 28, the Whitman alumnus returned “home” to campus, where he and Professor David Schmitz, Robert Allen Skotheim Chair of History, held a public conversation titled “The events for which the Iraq war will be remembered have not yet happened.” He received a standing ovation at the end of the evening’s discussion, which followed a full day of campus visits and discussions.
“Iraq has made very significant progress over the last two years,” he told a packed crowd in Cordiner Hall. He said he remains optimistic about Iraq’s future, now that he is back after navigating through the military surge and crafting security agreements that the Iraqi parliament overwhelmingly supported. But he stressed that just like it took a new United States from July 4, 1776, to the end of the Civil War to organize itself and sort out states’ rights; it could take many years for Iraq, a country with perhaps more challenges, to do the same.
Prior to the evening discussion, Crocker spent the day at Whitman giving talks, answering students’ questions in a course on U.S. & Wars with Iraq; having lunch with history majors; visiting his one-time fraternity house, Tau Kappa Epsilon, and touring campus.
He credits Whitman for developing critical and creative thinkers, and often says that the college “did so much to shape my life and my career.”
Crocker retired from a storied diplomatic career, which included posts in Pakistan during devastating earthquakes and Lebanon during a car bombing of the embassy and most recently, receiving a rare Presidential Medal of Freedom. He wanted to retire two years ago, but he and his wife, Christine, delayed their plans at the behest of then-President George W. Bush, who requested that Crocker take the Iraq post.
The Crockers plan to spend their retirement in Spokane, Wash., the birthplace of his father, a career military officer who attended Whitman only one year, yet extolled its virtues, the quality of its education and faculty, throughout his life. Whitman didn’t disappoint, said the younger Crocker, noting the college equipped him for the Foreign Service.
“The greatest thing about a liberal arts education — it teaches you how to think,” he said. “Whitman faculty has always been dedicated to that purpose.” Students develop an ability to deal with complex issues, to “think on your feet.” He was fluent in Arabic going into Iraq, and knew the country’s history and literature, as well. Iraqi poets, he noted, introduced free verse, breaking from classic literary traditions and causing commotion in the Arab world. “It gives you an understanding of the people,” he said. Iraqis are “determined, persistent. Iraqis lead, for better or for worse.”
Crocker said studying imaginative literature, for example, was an effective tool in understanding and relating to the world, to foreign cultures. “I would also argue there is tremendous mental discipline,” he said. “It expands your mind, requires abstract formulating of knowledge and learning not only to think, but to feel — something that is undervalued. Sensing something as well as intellectualizing it “is just as important.”
He also remains an admirer of the college’s accomplished faculty. And he said Whitman has become even better since his college days, a view he bases on such indicators as student test scores and the number of graduates who go on to graduate school.
Crocker was an English major and created his own study abroad experience before Whitman had such a program just so he could spend his junior year studying literature in Ireland. He is impressed that now more than half of Whitties spend time studying overseas. “You have to understand the world on its own terms,” he said. “You’ve got to get out into the world.”
He repeated throughout the day how impressed he is with the college’s new Global Studies Initiative which, with the help of a $350,000 Mellon Foundation grant, is providing faculty development opportunities, workshops and seminars that will lead to more interdisciplinary courses on global themes and develop students’ global awareness of the interconnectedness of the world’s cultures.
“It’s a tremendous initiative,” he said. And it’s hugely important. When he was a college student, the world in the midst of the Cold War had a level of stability, because of the balance of the two powers, that it doesn’t have today, he said. “In the post Cold War era, in a non-polar world, regional peculiarities, tensions and phenomena create conflicts and challenges in ways that are not predictable if you’re not schooled in a global environment,” he said.
He understands that the study of history doesn’t come easily in the United States, where the focus is on moving forward. But he stressed its incredible importance, particularly when “you’re playing on other people’s fields.”
Crocker looks forward in retirement to many things – foremost among them, freedom from needing a driver, a 40-person entourage and helicopter gunships hovering overhead every time he steps out the door. Also, to the opportunity to offer his expertise without the burden of intense responsibilities that come with being an ambassador in war-torn Middle Eastern countries, the opportunity to spend significant time at Whitman and in service to the college as an overseer, as well as the ability to drive his own car to Walla Walla at a time of his own choosing.
His next drive to Walla Walla? May 24, to deliver the Commencement address.