Michael H. Hunt: Ryan Crocker and the Imperial Reckoning

Michael H. Hunt[This article is cross-posted from the author’s website.]

Outgoing Ambassador Ryan Crocker’s interview with the New York Times earlier this week served notice that a controversial American project is drawing to a close. Crocker has been intimately involved from the beginning. He served in the State Department during the run up to the Iraq invasion and warned in a co-authored memo titled “The Perfect Storm” of the dangers of Iraq fragmenting and becoming a focus of regional conflict. He later became ambassador to Iraq before his posting to Afghanistan.

His impending departure from Kabul has put him in a retrospective mood. He offers as lessons worth learning from the Iraq-Afghanistan adventure that U.S. control is limited, especially when meddling in other peoples’ lives and lands, and that liquidating an intervention gone bad is difficult.

Crocker’s comments are more interesting for their omissions than for their self-evident insights. He could say, for example, that he has been involved in a great imperial failure deserving of careful study.

It’s imperial in the sense that the Bush administration took over two countries by force of arms and along with the Obama administration tried to reshape them to U.S. preferences through a combination of direct rule and client regimes. This exercise would in the case of any other country be called empire. So let’s not be squeamish; for the sake of clarity, let’s do it here.

It’s a failure in the sense that the goals that defined the project at the outset have not been met, and even the watered-down objectives seem well beyond reach. The destruction and dislocation on the ground has been considerable, indeed a humanitarian disaster. The expenditure of U.S. resources at a time of mounting fiscal constraint has been foolishly profligate. The Middle East may be less responsive to U.S. interests and the international community less attuned to U.S. legitimacy and leadership than at any time since the end of World War II.

The magnitude of that failure becomes evident if viewed in comparative terms. The United States has carved out positions overseas that can fairly be called imperial dating back to the seizure, occupation, and pacification of the Philippines in 1898-99. Cuba, Haiti, Guatemala, Iran, South Korea, Japan, and Vietnam were some of the other countries that came under and then slipped out of U.S. control. Yet arguably in none of these cases—with one glaring exception—did the outcome fall so short of U.S. goals and prove so damaging to U.S. interests.

That exception was of course Vietnam, which Crocker does not even allude to even though his foreign service career began there just as the U.S. war there was drawing to its dismal end. He might well have said that taking over Iraq and Afghanistan flew in the face of lessons that Vietnam should already have taught. But serious Vietnam lessons—those that are well grounded historically—remain radioactive. Political leaders and the foreign policy establishment don’t want to get close. They have many ambitions but glowing in the dark seems not one of them.

One reason for the U.S. failure in the Middle East seems obvious. The Bush administration embraced empire long after empire’s expiration date had passed. The American project faced potent opposition in Iraq and Afghanistan that could be contained only by making deals with shrewd collaborators with their own interests to serve. The international hostility to the Iraq invasion was intense, and even in the United States the Iraq adventure fell into disfavor. In domestic and international opinion Afghanistan has fared only slightly better. In short empire has become anathema. It is so disagreeable a phenomenon that even the American policymakers who practice it cannot bring themselves to call it by its proper name.

Thus Crocker’s interview provides a reminder that the time for lessons, stocktaking, judgments, and even recrimination, scapegoating, and shirking responsibility have arrived. For any historian, this marks the beginning of a familiar process following a fairly standard script. We have already largely gotten through the first stage—the appearance of journalist accounts written from the perspective of Washington and the troops in the field. These first-cut histories are usually followed by participant memoirs in which decision makers and their servitors like Crocker can offer up their own usually self-serving versions of events. The third stage opens as the relevant government documents and personal papers see the light of day. Policy wonks and history geeks have a field day as the National Archives and presidential libraries open for research the fundamental stuff of good history—ample, detailed evidence. (At this point the original of Crocker’s memo should appear and scholars will determine whether it lives up to its reputation.)

The resulting richly documented reconstructions may improve on the journalist and memoir accounts, but they won’t provide the last word or yield a consensus. Indeed, perspectives are bound to continue to change depending especially on developments in Iraq, Afghanistan, and their neighborhood. Perspectives are also bound to get richer as scholars explore the international perspective, including regional views. This entire process is agonizingly slow. Declassification of government documents usually doesn’t happen until thirty years or more after the event. (Some important material related to intelligence and covert activities may never be released.) So, sadly, as time passes and the basis for judgment grows richer, the interest in it outside fairly narrow communities of specialists fades as new issues rivet public and policy attention.

Finally, Crocker’s diplomatic swan song raises difficult professional and moral questions about how to respond when implicated in a policy deeply damaging to the U.S. international position, blatantly in violation of professed U.S. values and international norms, resulting in death and destruction to millions, and directing yet another generation of young Americans through the meat grinder of a misbegotten war. Resign quietly? Protest publicly, knowing little will come of it? Serve on in hopes of somehow preventing a bad course of action from getting worse? Honor an earlier commitment of service to the American state—or to be more precise, the imperial presidency? Crocker and others in the foreign service and the military will no doubt tell us more about how they wrestled with these options or simply passed them by with little thought to anything beyond the obligation to follow orders. Imperial reckonings are also, it seems, a time for personal reckonings.


Michael H. Hunt is Emerson Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author or editor of eleven books, including Arc of Empire: America’s Wars in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam (with Steven I. Levine), The American Ascendancy: How the United States Gained and Wielded Global Dominance, and A Vietnam War Reader: A Documentary History from American and Vietnamese Perspectives. Read his other guest posts on this blog or visit his website.