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A gutsy commencement address

Former Iraq ambassador Ryan Crocker, a Whitman graduate, issues an unlikely Niebuhrian challenge to the class of 2009
Ambassador Ryan Crocker, Class of 71

Ambassador Ryan Crocker, Class of 71 Whitman College

Former U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker gave a courageous and eloquent commencement address to the graduating class at Whitman College on Sunday, one that seemed at odds with the setting and the occasion. And that may have been his point.

Whitman is located in Walla Walla, a small Eastern Washington town some have taken to calling “Sonoma North,” a reference to its recent transformation into a wine-producing capital. The graduation exercises unfolded beneath bright blue skies, warm sun, and the spreading branches of sycamore and elm trees on a campus that might fairly be described as “classic,” both for its beauty and the way it seems a haven from the world. I was there as the proud dad of a graduating daughter.

In such a setting Crocker's challenge to the graduates to “March to the guns,” meaning head for the action and where the battles are real in a conflicted world, was a contrast with the otherwise light-hearted and festive nature of the day as well as the bucolic setting. From his opening observation, “We must deal with the world as it is and not as we might wish to it be,” to his “March to the guns” conclusion, Crocker described a world where the U.S. faces determined adversaries and conflict with genuine enemies. That he did so in soft-spoken cadences of a diplomat did not diminish the force of his assessment.

A 1971 graduate of Whitman, Ryan Crocker has just retired from a distinguished career of 38 years in the Foreign Service. Since 2007 he has been the ambassador to Iraq, and was, along with Gen. David Petraeus, frequently the point person in explaining the Bush administration's “surge strategy” before Congress. Prior to the post in Baghdad, Crocker had served as U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait, and Lebanon. He was assigned to the American Embassy in Beirut during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the bombing of the embassy and the Marine barracks in 1983. It was after that bombing that President Reagan precipitously withdrew U.S. forces in the region rather than risk political fallout.

While Crocker is a Foreign Service officer and not a political appointee, and is widely respected in that role, he did offer a resolute, if low-key, defense of the Iraq War. He noted that, “Today many people do not remember what a threat Saddam Hussein posed to the United Nations system,” a reference to Saddam's defiance of UN resolutions and weapons inspectors. He acknowledged that the U.S. may have made a mistake in going to war in Iraq “without our traditional allies,” but suggested that the same allies were mistaken not to involve themselves. “Perhaps, we have both learned something.”

In making this defense of the Iraq War to a student body and college community much more likely to be critical than supportive of it, Crocker implicitly denied the idea that the war could simply be dismissed as an ill-conceived adventure of the Bush administration. Moreover, he worried about the U.S. capacity for sustained commitment in such conflicts, noting how different U.S. elections in the course of the long war reflected waxing and waning public support. In a particularly ominous comment, Crocker said that it is when the U.S. feels it has achieved victory and is done with a conflict that our adversaries are often and only then ready to begin their fight.

In a reference to the College's namesake, missionary Marcus Whitman, who famously said that he came west because his plans required “time and distance,” Crocker said both time and distance are necessary for U.S. plans and policies today. But the “distance” Crocker had in mind seemed not so much geographical as something like the perseverance of the long distance runner.

Crocker's larger point to the graduates was that they would now be adults and citizens in a world where there are battles to be fought and that they ought not shirk them but “march to the guns” and head for the action — a path Crocker himself had taken on leaving Whitman.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, May 28, 12:21 p.m. Inappropriate

Apologies--my earlier post was incomplete when I prematurely hit 'submit comment'...

I'm glad you were persuaded of the correctness of the Iraq venture, Pastor Robinson, 'neath the bright blue sky and the spreading elms, by President Bush's ambassador's gutsy speech. The Bush administration was noted for its gutsiness, for its unflinching willingness to take on the world as it was (in the President's eyes), to misread (if not actually to fabricate) evidence of "WMD," and to move briskly ahead when the community of nations proved disinclined to follow the American standard into hasty battle.

WWJD?

And for that matter, what would an American leader have done who was truly committed to coaxing the "community of nations" into concerted action, rather than sponsoring a disasterous venture whose long-term effects are only now beginning to register.

The Ambassador, it appears, made a spirited and unapologetic apology for his President's quixotic charge into Baghdad. And at this point, 6 years along, it does appear that Al Quaeda (probably NOT operating in that country at all in 2003) is less active than it was at the height of Iraqi violence, aided in its recruitment by the U.S. presence.

The Ambassador is also apparently satisfied that The American Prospect is rosier now than it was prior to the Iraqi incursion (at which time the Afghan incursion had, in that quizzical phrase, "arguably" achieved gains against an actual Al Queda presence, the American ability to project force strategically had not been bled out in repeated deployments of too few troops, and Pakistan was not on the verge of collapse).

But the stern call to Whitman grads and a faltering nation sounds much like "stay the course" and rally to the banner: life is more difficult than you know, and there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your wimpy philosophy.

As for Reinhold Niebuhr, I (and The Atlantic) think the old guy deserves to be given a rest:

"...the Niebuhr revival has been perplexing, even bizarre, as people with profoundly divergent views of the war have all claimed Niebuhr as their precursor: bellicose neoconservatives, chastened “liberal hawks,” and the stalwarts of the antiwar left. Inevitably, politicians have taken note, and by now a well-turned Niebuhr reference is the speechwriter’s equivalent of a photo op with Bono. In recent months alone, John McCain (in a book) celebrated Niebuhr as a paragon of clarity about the costs of a good war; New York Governor Eliot Spitzer (at the Chautauqua Institution) invoked Niebuhr as a model of the humility lacking in the White House; and Barack Obama (leaving the Senate floor) called Niebuhr “one of [his] favorite philosophers” for his account of “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world.”

(Read more at this url: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200711/reinhold-niebuhr

— Seneca

Seneca

Posted Thu, May 28, 1:22 p.m. Inappropriate

".. to misread (if not actually to fabricate) evidence of "WMD,"

Seneca, name any members of the Armed Services Committees or the Intelligence Committees (House or Senate) who interpreted 2002 intelligence any different than the Bush Administration. So maybe Bush "fabricated evidence? is that an accusation or just an easy sneer? (maybe Obama was born in Indonesia).

Saddam is gone. That much is a good thing. Alternatives to the invasion have to at least acknowledge that Saddam and Uday would still be there. It would be nice to think that diplomacy would have changed their ways and maybe that's what you think would have happened. If so, planning for the future must be easy for you.

kieth

Posted Thu, May 28, 2:18 p.m. Inappropriate

Thank you, kieth. I entirely agree with you that Saddam's disappearance from the scene is a good thing.

As for the details of who (mis)interpreted or manipulated what, I'll encourage you to have a look at just two sources of information regarding how the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld administration managed the runup to the war:

Frontline's exceptional recounting of key events, interpretations, and pronouncements (along my plug for Frontline as the very best chronicler of the entire post-9/11 military adventures; they've produced, I think, eight or so riveting shows that follow unfolding events, all of them viewable online at pbs.org):

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/programs/info/2608.html

Thomas Ricks' aptly-named book, "Fiasco," which does in print what Frontline did in video. Ricks is a Washington Post reporter who has won the Pulitzer for military reporting (he appears in one or more of the Frontline programs).

I would never say, and did not say, that 'diplomacy would have changed their (Saddam and Company's) ways'; I do say that more persistent diplomacy could have achieved regime change in a more effective way.

Seneca

Posted Thu, May 28, 8:50 p.m. Inappropriate

It's hardly "gutsy" to give a one-way address making excuses for your and your friends' poor judgment. True guts would have been to offer up a self-critique, a how-to-not-make-the-mistakes-I-made speech. Instead he does the opposite, encouraging others into the breach of his poor decision making--and for this he's called "gutsy"?

Saddam was not Hitler, Iraq was not Nazi Germany, and the most powerful military in history invading a former client directly causing the displacement and murder of millions of innocents for no apparent reason is as close enough to evil so as to render the invaders incapable of ever taking pedantic moral stances again.

Evil does exist in the world and it's everyone's duty to first fight it in their own nation.

Posted Fri, Aug 21, 8:25 a.m. Inappropriate

We'll suggest to members of the class of 1960 that they help convince the current Whitman administration that they extend an invitation to Sayyid Ali Khamenei to deliver the 2010 Whitman College commencement address.

2010 coincides with the 30th anniverary of the start of the Iraq/Iran war which Whitman College alumnus Ryan Crocker likely helped start.

http://home.comcast.net/~bpayne37/whitman59/whitman59after.htm#dougmclane

billp37

Posted Sun, Aug 23, 5:46 p.m. Inappropriate

Sunday August 23, 2009 18:32

Don Hewitt was subject of 60 minutes Sunday August 23, 2009.

Here are notes saved in disk files.

Payne got a phone call from an upset and agitated Don Hewitt of 60 Minutes in August 2000.

Hewitt advised Payne to stop this.

Let's invite 60 Minutes to do a story the NSA spy sting on Iran.

The media wishes to control the situation. Sorry msm corp/gov media.

http://home.comcast.net/~bpayne37/whitman59/whitman59after.htm#dougmclane

billp37

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