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Former ambassador shares insights with Whitman students

In a recent workshop with Whitman College students, former ambassador to Iraq and Whitman alumnus Ryan Crocker ’71 spoke on a subject often at the forefront of his 38 years in the United States Foreign Service: “Public service vs. personal conviction: what to do when they collide?”

“For those of you who think you’re going into Foreign Service to deal with other governments, your hardest and most critical fight may be with your own,” Crocker told students.

He shared his experience as ambassador to Lebanon in the 1980s, when he voiced his opposition to U.S. policy.

“When I got back from Lebanon I was given an award for creative dissent,” Crocker said, characterizing it as the “ultimate irony” of his term in that country, as his “dissent” was largely ignored by those in power. 

Crocker explained later that the award was the Rivkin Award, presented to him in 1984 by the American Foreign Service Association (not the U.S. State Department) in recognition of creative dissent by a mid-level officer.

Lebanon turned out to be learning experience, which would shape his approach to diplomacy in years after: “If you’re going to influence policy, you have to have credibility with the policymakers,” he said.

He said this commitment to affecting change from within, rather than without, helped him persevere and do his job even at times when, as recently as 2002 in Iraq, “I thought, ‘I just can’t do this.”

“I’m glad I stayed with it,” he said. “The further along you go, the more seniority you have, the more you learn through hard experience how to deal with the system.”

Students who signed up for the workshop had the chance to talk one-on-one with Crocker about his career as a diplomat, during which he served as ambassador to Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon before retiring in 2009. On Jan. 15 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from then U.S. President George W. Bush, who called Crocker “America’s Lawrence of Arabia” and said Crocker’s understanding of the region is unmatched.

Crocker, who maintains his Whitman education “did so much to shape my life and career,” spent several days at Whitman giving workshops and a public lecture. He said he plans to spend more time at Whitman during his retirement to offer his insights and information about a career spent “on the scene.”

Had he not gone into Foreign Service, Crocker said he might have considered joining the marines or the CIA, joking that he will now need to find other ways to occupy his retirement since “I am unfortunately too old to join the marines.”

But he said he would not go back and change his career. “I would not rewrite the script.  I’ve appreciated the chance to be the man on the spot, however constrained I might be by policies I don’t really think are working right, or all the rest of the smoke and dust that obscures your vision,” he said. 

Crocker let students steer the conversation with their questions.  

 “We can take this discussion anywhere you want to go,” he told them. “The floor is yours.”

Students asked about subjects ranging from Latin America to torture to the use of military contractors in the Iraq war. 

Nadim Damluji ’10, president of Association of Students of Whitman College, asked what Crocker’s relationships were like with civilians in countries like Lebanon and Iraq. 

“Those were the best parts of my day, when I could get out and have coffee or tea with the people who lived in these places,” he said. “And it’s important to do so.”

Blair Frank ’13, who attended the discussion, said he appreciates having Crocker as a resource. 

“It’s nice to have someone who is so intimately connected with the school who is also so incredibly familiar with the intricacies of foreign policy and international relations,” he said.  “I really enjoyed hearing his perspective.”

Alumnus and former ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker visited campus during the week of Nov. 9-12, 2009. Whitman Pioneer news editor Galen Bernard covered the visit. Click here to read his report, published in the Nov. 12 edition.