Former Top Diplomat Cautions Egypt Might Go the Way of Syria

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Ambassador Ryan Crocker served as US diplomat for over thirty years, including postings in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. He says building alliances in Syria poses huge dangers for Washington.

Ryan Crocker: If we're dealing with a people who say all they have left are suicide vests, ya know, one wonders what their basic orientation is and I think this has been the problem all along. The best organized, most effective of the rebel groups, are also the most hostile to the west. Putting weapons into groups that we consider moderate, like the pre-Syrian army, I think run the risk of being hijacked by these extremists.

Werman: But, what can the US do in the meantime, aside from washing its hands of being involved in Syria?

Crocker: We need sure-up the periphery. I think we need to pay all the attention we can to Lebanon to Jordan to Iraq, as well as to Turkey, which is in a stronger position. Jordan and Lebanon are very, very vulnerable and so, I think we have to be very active with our assistance programs, those in support of Syrian refugees, so they don't become a radicalized population, like the Palestinians a couple of decades ago. We need to look at what other immediate needs the Lebanese government has so that that country doesn't become the next domino to fall in this regional conflict. So, that's number one; engage Syria's neighbors to see that the contagion does not spread. The second thing I would argue; we need to figure out how to get some Arabic speaking, Aryan knowledgeable diplomats into Syria to make some assessments on the ground of what the situation is, what our options are, who we can work with, who we can't work with. Yes, there's a risk. After Benghazi, no ones wants to take risks, but the fact is, that's what your foreign service is for.

Werman: Ryan Crocker, there seems to be, with Syria, a parallel with Egypt, in terms of the struggle to find role to play by the US. What is guiding US policy in Syria and Egypt right now? We've been told human rights and democracy were at the forefront. Was that rhetoric and is that just out the window now?

Crocker: Right now our paramount interest has to be insuring that Egypt does not become Syria. You've got to be clear right about this. In a country with virtually no democratic tradition, like Egypt, we simply don't get democracy based on the rule of law and all the institutions that we enjoy in this country, by the overthrow of an autocrat. You get, pretty much, what we've got now.

Werman: What is this moment like for diplomats regarding Egypt? I mean, what's the moral dilemma that diplomats are going through right now and can't really talk about? Can you offer us a possible peak inside Ambassador Anne Patterson's head right now?

Crocker: We agonize over these moments, but as senior diplomats, they are also the moments we live for; enormously complex situations that present existential challenges to the region and to our own interests. Where Washington is unsure of how to proceed, the man or woman on the spot has enormous responsibilities and enormous opportunities to make the analysis, the recommendations, and chart the way forward that the administration can then adapt.

Werman: Meanwhile, the governments in Saudi Arabia and The United Arab Emirates are pouring billions of dollars into Egypt's new regime. In comparison, will the US have any clout there in that pivotal country? Has the US kind of created a zero-option in Egypt, by default?

Crocker: The talk about declining US influence is vastly overstated. In my judgement, we remain the most important diplomatic player in the world and that includes in Egypt. Saudi Arabia and The United Arab Emirates are allies of the United States. You leverage the resources of your friends as well as your own. What I hope we're doing is engaging them in a very serious dialogue of what we jointly or collectively want to achieve in Egypt and how our respective resources can be used to further that.

Werman: Veteran diplomat Ryan Crocker was the US Ambassador to many trouble spots including Afghanistan and Iraq. Good to speak with you again, Ambassador. Thank you.

Crocker: Thank you