WASHINGTON — Ryan Crocker took an Uber to dinner at a Syrian restaurant in Baghdad.
That simple act offers a glimpse of the profound changes the Middle East has undergone since Crocker served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2007 -09. After two decades of devastating violence since the United States and its allies invaded the country and ended the quarter-century rule of Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein in 2003, the capital has seen relative calm in recent months.
“There’s just a life to this city again,” Crocker said. “It’s a dusty, dingy place — it always has been — but it’s vibrant. You feel the energy.”
Meanwhile, the restaurant’s owners are among more than 7 million refugees, according to the United Nations, who have fled neighboring Syria since that country’s civil war began in 2011 and the Islamic State group capitalized on instability and sectarian strife inflamed by the U.S. intervention to seize control of large swaths of Iraq and Syria.
Crocker was in Baghdad to attend a conference as Iraqis on Monday marked the 20th anniversary of the invasion that set in motion a chain of events that have reshaped the region, for better or worse. In an interview with The Spokesman-Review, the Spokane Valley native, who moved back to his hometown after a four-decade career in the Foreign Service that earned him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, reflected on the lessons of the Iraq War and what the country’s future may hold.
“There’s an assumption on the part of critics of the war to think that if we just hadn’t invaded, everything would have been great,” he said. “And that just isn’t true.”
After serving as U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, Kuwait and Syria, Crocker went to State Department headquarters to serve as deputy assistant secretary for Near East affairs just weeks before the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In March 2003, he was in Ankara, having tried and failed to convince Turkey’s government to let the U.S. military offload at a Turkish port — a move that could have allowed the invasion to approach Baghdad from two sides in a pincer movement.
As he was getting ready to fly back to Washington, Crocker flipped on the TV and saw then-President George W. Bush announcing the invasion.
“I knew pretty clearly that it was with our hands tied behind our backs,” he recalled. “There would be no northern front. There would be no pincer.”
That meant that before U.S. and allied troops reached Baghdad, Iraqi soldiers to the north of the capital “burned their uniforms, stashed their weapons and basically melted into the countryside,” Crocker said.
The United States exacerbated that problem by disbanding the Iraqi army after taking control of the capital and establishing a provisional government, setting the stage for an insurgency that fought U.S. and allied forces for years.
From the invasion until August 2021, violence in Iraq has taken the lives of nearly 4,600 U.S. troops, more than 3,600 U.S. contractors and civilian Defense Department employees, more than 45,000 Iraqi soldiers and police, and roughly 200,000 Iraqi civilians, according to Brown University’s Costs of War project. Factoring in the cost of veterans’ care, America’s post-9/11 wars have cost the nation roughly $8 trillion, the project estimates.
Former President Barack Obama, who had campaigned on a promise to get American forces out of Iraq, officially ended U.S. combat operations in 2010. Today, some 2,500 U.S. troops remain in the country in a limited role to train and advise the Iraqi military. Some U.S. special forces also continue to operate in the country, but the Pentagon does not reveal their numbers.
The Senate is expected to take up a bill this week that would repeal the war authorization Congress passed in 2003, a largely symbolic move that Crocker said is unlikely to affect ongoing U.S. military operations in Iraq. When he has asked Iraqi officials what they think of Congress repealing that authority, they have been nonchalant.
“Universally, they said, ‘What’s the AUMF?’ “ Crocker said. “It will not affect the bulk of our military here. For the fairly small number of special forces we’ve got, I’m told it will not affect how they operate.”
The conference in Baghdad is sponsored by Iraq’s new prime minister, Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani, who has been in office since October. While critics have warned al-Sudani is closely aligned with Iran, Crocker said the conference had shown positive signs of the direction Iraq’s new leader seems to be taking.
Unlike previous Iraqi premiers who went into exile, al-Sudani has spent nearly all his life in the country. That may help him combat the endemic corruption that has held back Iraq’s development, Crocker said, adding that the corruption is “not entirely their fault.”
“When a foreign army moves in, removes a government and its attendant institutions, empowers a new order of governance, what you have then are people governing with no institutions and no broadly accepted and respected rule of law,” he said. “With that environment, you just add money, put it in a dark room for 24 hours and — bingo — you’ve got industrial-strength corruption.”
Crocker, who went on to serve as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan in 2011 and 2012, said that while Iraq is “totally different” from the Central Asian nation the United States invaded in 2001, the two countries have been similarly afflicted with corruption.
“Ultimately, it is only these countries and those who govern them who can fix it,” he said. “It’s one of many things that you cannot fix from outside.”
Attending the conference, which Crocker said included U.S. academics and investors but no Russian or Iranian representatives, made him feel better about the Iraqis’ ability to develop and sustain their own form of democracy. One promising development, he said, is that militia leaders whose forces have prolonged the war are now choosing to lay down arms and become politicians, exerting influence through government institutions instead of violence.
Looking back at the two decades since the war began, Crocker said he still doesn’t know if invading Iraq was the right decision. The Bush administration justified the invasion on the claim that Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction — a claim a 2004 Senate report found to be based on faulty intelligence — but Crocker said the real basis for the war was more complicated.
“I was against the invasion because I knew I was going to get stuck with the aftermath and I had no idea what we would do, but I didn’t have a better plan,” he said.
A year after coming to power in 1979, Hussein invaded Iran, beginning a bloody war that lasted until 1988. Soon after, he invaded Kuwait in 1990, starting the Gulf War and prompting international sanctions against Iraq. But by 2002, Crocker said, that sanctions regime was collapsing and “Saddam was getting out of the cage.”
“That’s why I found it all so agonizing,” he said. “I didn’t have anything I could put on the table and say, ‘Let’s do this instead of that,’ and this will mitigate the Saddam threat without sending us into a war that’s going to last for 20 years.”
While he doesn’t consider himself an optimist, Crocker said he is encouraged by what he sees in Iraq and across the region, including the Abraham Accords that restored diplomatic relations between Israel and three Arab nations. But the Iraq War should teach the United States a clear lesson, he said.
“Be careful what you get into,” Crocker said. “A major military action aimed at overthrowing somebody else’s government and occupying their country is an event of almost unimaginable proportions and it will have consequences that go on for years.”