Ryan Crocker 

Frank Church keynoter recalls Chris Stevens, the urgency of diplomacy and herding sheep

Ryan Crocker, the son of an Air Force pilot, began an up-close and very personal view of the world at an early age.

"By the time I was 3 years old, we were in Morocco," remembered Crocker.

Six decades later, he returned home to his native Washington State, following a career that is unrivaled in the U.S. Foreign Service--serving as ambassador to Lebanon, Kuwait, Syria, Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan.

In anticipation of his Tuesday, Oct. 16, keynote address at the 29th annual Frank Church Conference at Boise State, Boise Weekly spoke with Crocker about his time spent in the globe's hotspots, his friend Chris Stevens and being called "America's Lawrence of Arabia."

When you were a young man, you hitchhiked from Amsterdam to Calcutta.

It was a three-month trek following my junior year in college. That's when I first fell in love with the Middle East. It remained my passion for the next 40 years.

Tell us about the time that you were a shepherd.

I was in my second year of learning Arabic in the late 1970s but I wanted to experience a total linguistic immersion. The young men of a particular family had left to join the military, so I became a sheep and goat herder--not a very good one. It was an unforgettable time. That was in the deep south of Jordan, where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed.

Many years later, President George W. Bush called you America's Lawrence of Arabia.

His term, not mine. I did not make or remake empires.

The New York Times once characterized you as a tough boss who drives himself as hard as he drives his staff.

It's hard to make self-assessments. I had some tough assignments.

I think most people would say that your assignments were the toughest on the planet.

Some friends have said I've been ambassador six times to countries where no sane person would elect to spend a weekend.

You've seen up-close attacks on American strongholds, including your residence in Damascus in 1998.

You focus on the needs of the moment. When an attack occurs, you think about what you have to do to defend the mission. Nobody is thinking about being hurt or killed.

How well did you know Chris Stevens (the U.S. ambassador to Libya, who was killed with three other Americans Sept. 11, 2012)?

We're a fairly small tribe. It was like losing a family member. He was smart, experienced and always ready to put his hand up to go to the hard places. It was a huge, huge loss to the Foreign Service, the nation and, of course, anyone who knew him.

I'm wondering what it's like being stationed overseas during a presidential campaign, watching the Foreign Service being politicized.

You keep your focus on the mission. America has only one president at a time.

You had retired once already when President Barack Obama asked you in April 2011 to serve as ambassador to Afghanistan. How difficult a decision was that for you?

When the Commander in Chief asks you to serve in a time of war, there is only one correct answer. The only thing harder than going to Afghanistan would have been trying to live with myself if I had said no.

You cited your health as the chief reason for your retirement this year. How are you feeling?

Getting back home has helped.

Can I ask what your diagnosis is?

They don't really know.

How does it manifest?

When I'm having a bad day, you'll see a noticeable limp. It's aggravated by stress or exhaustion and Afghanistan had an abundant supply of both.

Can you speak to the legacy of Frank Church?

Frank Church was a great Idahoan, but also a truly great statesman who practiced reasoned activism on behalf of peace. I hope that the conference gives us a time to reflect on how he was a giant in America when America needed a giant.

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