Episode 1: US Military & Diplomatic Leadership In Iraq with General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker

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Join General David Petreaus & Ambassador Ryan Crocker as they discuss the US diplomatic and military cooperation in Iraq.


Episode Transcript:

Amb. McCarthy: (00:06) We're here today for the launch of a new series by the Academy of Diplomacy. It is called The General and the Ambassador: A Conversation. Our aim is simple to explain how our top military commanders work hand in glove overseas with our top ambassadors in some of the toughest areas of the world or on some of the toughest challenges our country faces. My name is Ambassador Deborah McCarthy and I will be the moderator. Today we have General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. They served together in Iraq in 2007 and 2008. General Petraeus was the Commanding General of Multinational Forces, Iraq, overseeing all coalition forces. Ambassador Crocker was the US ambassador to Iraq. Both have had distinguished careers and each served our country for 37 years. Both achieved four star status. So I wanted to start today by just asking a key question. Tell me Ambassador how this relationship evolved.

Amb. Crocker: (01:06) When we were approached separately in the fall of 2006, it was the very worst of times in Iraq. Just, it was an industrial strength, civil war so well before we ever got to Baghdad, Dave and I were on secure phones. I was in Pakistan, he was at Fort Leavenworth, kind of going through how we were going to approach this and a concept that Dave put forward that was absolutely golden, a joint political military strategic assessment team to look at the campaign plan of our predecessors and to make recommendations for a new campaign plan. And that, that kluged us up right from the beginning.

Amb. McCarthy: (01:55) You started the relationship basically back here before being out together.

Gen. Petraeus (02:00) That's right. And really what, if you, if you really ask conceptually what it is it that we tried to do it was to be joined at the hip in all of the important activities that went on in Iraq. We even used to run together. In fact, once a week on a Sunday morning, Ryan would be flown over in a helicopter to where we actually spent the night. We had this complex on of Saddam's old palace complexes around a manmade lake near Baghdad international airport. And so he'd come over and we would run five, six miles together and try to solve the worlds or at least Iraq's problems during the course of a run. We had co-located offices. We actually shared the same waiting room. We developed this, a truly integrated civil military campaign plan. By the way, the individual who ran that assessment that Ryan just talked about was HR McMaster. Now the National Security Advisor of the United States. We partnered in everything that we did from the weekly video conferences with President Bush and the national security team and meetings with congressional delegations, to our weekly meetings with the Iraqi Prime Minister and the weekly Iraqi National Security Council meeting. So everything that mattered, we tried to do together.

Amb. Crocker: (03:22) I remember, one of those runs, I guess it may have been before congressional testimony where we kind of pinged back and forth on how we might shape our statements, what questions we needed to get ready for and so forth, and I would say one thing on that testimony, it was like 20, 21 hours over two days, just awful.

Gen. Petraeus: (03:44) It was excruciating.

Amb. Crocker: (03:45) You know, there was never a moment I can recall where both of us started to answer the question at the same time. We instinctively knew whose question it was. We didn't need to look at each other. Although toward the end I was getting a little twitchy, you wrote on a piece of paper, "calm" in big block letters and you shoved that out in front of this. Yeah, it was a special time.

Gen. Petraeus: (04:20) It was, and I do remember at the end of all of it, we were going over to do the PBS News Hour together, and we arrived a few minutes early and we asked the security guys to step out of the vehicle, we were in an SUV, and we both turned to each other and simultaneously said, "I am never doing this again". We had become the joint face of the surge in Iraq, and so why don't we go back and testify together? But knowing that that meant that each of us had to do two additional hearings, because Ryan had to do the Armed Services committees and I had to do the Foreign Relations committee, something we would not have done had we not been doing this jointly. But we thought this made a lot of sense and I think the results validated that particular move on our part.

Amb. Crocker: (05:12) Yeah. It's, you would not like to make that a standard practice where the ambassador and the general have to take a break from actually prosecuting the campaign to come back and explain it to Congress.

Gen. Petraeus: (05:25) The campaign was going really quite well.

Amb. McCarthy: (05:27) Well, you definitely did set a precedent in that joint testimony and you're setting a precedent now and starting our podcast series, and those worked on that campaign plan were obviously both from our civilian and our military sides.

Amb. Crocker: (05:40) Right down the line. There was a military co-chairman and a civilian co chairman. HR McMaster for Dave, and then I had David Pierce one of our finest Arabists. That's a point that Dave makes on being just absolutely in lock step, that was in part to get the substance right with our Iraqi counterparts, but it was also a signal to our own folks, because at that time, rather few foreign service officers had a deep connection or understanding of the military and vice versa. And there was, you know, there was at least tacit resistance.

Gen. Petraeus: (06:20) We had to make a few examples early on, where we demonstrated that we were, as we used to say, 'a bit exercised', over the actions of individuals on either side of this normal fence, if you will, between military and civilian. But we really tried to break down that wall and again, to integrate everything that we did. One of the really significant initiatives that we pursued was reconciliation. So you couldn't, we recognized very early on we couldn't kill or capture our way out of an industrial strength insurgency. You had to certainly do that with the senior leaders who were irreconcilable, but with the rest of them and with populations writ large, the Sunni Arab community, we needed to bring as many of them in from the cold as we possibly could. And so we in fact formed a cell, a team, and once again it had a British two-star [general] as I recall, and again, a US ambassador.

Amb. Crocker: (07:23) Well, let me ask you, I believe you once said that you and Ambassador Crocker played good cop bad cop, or bad cop worse cop. How did this work?

Gen. Petraeus: (07:34) Well, we would sometimes figure out who is going to play which role. There's a lot of acting that goes on in this kind of endeavor. The Iraqis can be pretty emotional. We realized that on occasion we needed to show that we had significant emotions just as they did, and were on frequent display from them. And so on the way over to meetings with the Prime Minister together with a very trusted advisor and interpreter Saadi Othman, we would say, okay, you know, this is going to be, and I, if I was going to be the bad cop, I would remind Saadi. I'd say, "let it go on unless you think I'm no longer acting". Because occasionally, these are such significant issues, you start out acting and you get really seriously exercised and wound up. And so if that was the case, then he was supposed to pluck my sleeve and remind me that I'm supposed to be acting not, not truly venting

Amb. McCarthy: (08:31) Diplomats are actrors as well, so tell me about the good cop, bad cop routine.

Amb. Crocker: (08:37) it was just as Dave described it. Sometimes we would even switch seats depending who had the lead on a particular issue. And it did get a little tense sometimes. Remember the, who was the butcher of Baghdad? Mehdi Garawi. Horrendous crimes against humanity, and yet there he was still on active duty, and we were seeking to persuade the Prime Minister that this is really not a great thing for a country, ours, that is spending billions of dollars and lives to help him lead his country forward. And the louder you yelled, actually, the better it worked. And again with the Iraqis, just like to our own folks, the point we were making, among others, in doing it together was "don't think you can divide us, don't think you can play one of us off against the other". If they had sensed that, they would have done it in a heartbeat.

Gen. Petraeus: (09:41) Yeah. They'd drive a wedge between you in a heartbeat, which is why we always tried to do these important tasks together. Now obviously there are some that are strictly military and there are some that are strictly, if you will, diplomatic: development, intelligence, what have you. But again, we always tried to have everything as integrated as we could, all the way from daily activities that we carried out together to oversee the implementation of this civil military campaign plan, to a quarterly review that we used to do as a review of the civil military campaign plan, and it was a very painful endeavor.

Amb. McCarthy: (10:19) You ran the military side, General, and Ambassador, you ran the nonmilitary side, diplomatic side, lots of negotiations. What was the most unique thing that you did do?

Gen. Petraeus: (10:30) Well I think, again, just to start with, to have a civil military campaign plan, which to be fair, we should give credit to our predecessors. I think they were the first to do this. And what we did was refine it, make the changes that reflected the changes in the overall strategy, you know as I've often mentioned the surge that mattered most was actually not the surge of forces, as important as having those additional forces was to accelerate the implementation of the plan. The surge that mattered most was the surge of ideas. It was the change in what we were doing, from consolidating on big bases to once again living with the people because that's the only way that you can secure them. If you have an integrated plan where, again, it's military and civilian together, and it's not just diplomats, but also development experts, intelligence and engineers and all the rest of this, then you are doing it all together. But this is not, this is not the tradition. In fact, in Afghanistan we couldn't quite do this because it was a NATO operation, even though certainly the American military and diplomatic contributions were the biggest.

Amb. Crocker: (11:35) Although there, I worked very closely with John Allen, who I'd known for some years. We would sit down together and talk through the NATO diplomatic piece. Who did he need to talk to about what, what issues were coming up to him. So, you know, even there, I'll tell you something else about John Allen, he was a time we were there, he was a one-star marine.

Gen. Petraeus: (12:03) Yes in the surge.

Amb. Crocker: (12:03) Out in Multinational Force West. He really was the national treasure in terms of relations with the Sunni tribes. And, you know, I would call him directly, but it was that kind of atmosphere, who's got the best line on this? Who's knowledge is, do we need to tap into? John chopped his entire G-9 shop, the civil military relations to the PRT commander, a State Department officer. He just said, "look, your natural habitat is the area the PRT is working", so I don't know if that's ever been replicated, "they belong to the PRT, the leader, a state officer, for everything except discipline".

Gen. Petraeus: (12:55) And we're very comfortable with this.

Amb. Crocker: (12:57) I'll give you another example that I think is very important here: security. The standard presidential letter to a new ambassador says, "your primary responsibility is the safety of your people". You know, I saw that draft and I said, "if that's my primary responsibility in a war zone, you're going to need another ambassador". So they took that out, and that allowed us to do some kind of interesting things. Whoever had the assets to make an important move, those were the assets that would be used. So that allowed my people to ride in military convoys without all the other stuff that DS [Diplomatic Security] would normally require.

Gen. Petraeus: (13:45) If force protection really is the number one priority, we probably shouldn't be here.

Amb. Crocker: (13:50) Exactly.

Gen. Petraeus: (13:50) It can't be the number one priority. The number one priority, while certainly seeing to the best extent you can, the protection of your own people in carrying out their missions, but the number one mission is actually security of the Iraqi people. And that was the essence of the campaign, again, and you can't do that unless you live with them. And that is inherently dangerous. The key is security and that's the fundamental military task. And the foundation for all else, and once security has been established, you solidify it by all of the other actions, many of which are indeed within the province of the ambassador.

Amb. Crocker: (14:27) Yeah, my first week there, late March 2007, I went out to Dora, that had really been hammered, both by Shia militias and by al Qaeda. That was just at the time that you were sending surge forces into Dora, boy, and not a minute too soon. You know, there was not a single healthcare provider in that whole area. If they wanted to get to a hospital, they would have had to cross a bridge with a Shia militia checkpoint on it that would have killed them. But as our troops went in, you could almost hear the civilian population with a sigh of relief that, you know, the Americans are here.

Gen. Petraeus: (15:11) I told Congress in my confirmation hearing that it was going to get harder before it got easier because we had to go into the neighborhoods. And when you go into neighborhoods, there are going to be people that are going to fight back.

Amb. McCarthy: (15:24) So on this, the administration and where the funds were directed, how did you work together?

Gen. Petraeus: (15:30) Jointly.

Amb. McCarthy: (15:30) That's key.

Amb. Crocker: (15:31) This didn't happen with you. It did with Ray Odierno, who succeeded Dave. Toward late 2008, it was getting real quiet in Iraq. You know, violence countrywide was down to almost zero, so the focus really became reconstruction and that was a priority for the commanders out there. It was the only rough meeting I had with Ray. It was because he wanted AID officers down to the battalion level if he could get them, because they had the money, they had the mission, they didn't have the background to know how you run development. And I didn't have enough AID officers to do that. I just didn't.

Amb. McCarthy: (16:21) I wanted to turn to another topic, which is Iran. I mean you worked together and testified on the threats from Iran. Ambassador Crocker, your first posting was Iran, one of the few that served in Iran. Can you explain to our audience a little bit what Iran was doing and how you worked together in addressing that threat?

Amb. Crocker: (16:43) So when I got off that helicopter in Baghdad on a warm March night in 2007 to take up my duties there, I felt I had stepped back in time a full quarter of a century. I had been in Beirut as political counselor in the early eighties. What the Syrians and Iranians were doing jointly in Lebanon was pretty effective. They blew up the embassy, April 1983. They blew up the marine barracks, and we left. So the lesson those two countries absorbed was: cause them pain and they will leave. And that's exactly what they were doing in Iraq at that time, so it was pretty clear to both of us that we were definitely going to have to find ways to get in their faces.

Gen. Petraeus: (17:32) Revolutionary Guards, Quds Force, essentially, of Iran, was essentially funding, training, equipping and directing Shia militia forces who were active in Iraq, and killed hundreds of our soldiers, especially through the provision of what were called Explosively Formed Projectiles, EFP's. In fact, Ryan has used this phrase on a number of occasions, that Iran then and now, has always wanted to Lebanonize Iraq and also Syria.

Amb. Crocker: (18:03) The Iranians are dug deep into Iraq now. Our absence was filled by their presence. You know, know your adversary, Qasem Soleimani, a long time Quds Force commander. He commissioned in the Iranian Army in the summer of 1980, as a second lieutenant. A couple of months after that Saddam Hussein invaded Iran. Qasem Soleimani spent the whole eight year war in action, seven of those years on the front. Nobody in this country really remembers the Iran Iraq War and nobody in Iran or Iraq will ever forget it. And as I look at what Soleimani is doing in Iraq, what he is aiming at is a situation in which the country is permanently disabled. Some say that we have common interests with Iran in Iraq on the issue of the Islamic state. No, we don't.

Gen. Petraeus: (19:07) What I am confident of is that having had five or 10,000 troops on the ground when the Islamic state invaded western and northern Iraq would have enabled us to respond much more rapidly.

Amb. Crocker: (19:20) That's exactly what you did. That's exactly what you did in April, 2008.

Gen. Petraeus: (19:25) Yes.

Amb. Crocker: (19:27) Prime Minister Maliki launched an offensive against the Sadr militias. He, he gave us what, 24 hours notice?

Gen. Petraeus: (19:35) There was a degree of impulsiveness in this particular decision and we had to scramble.

Amb. Crocker: (19:40) Well, but you did. And doing just the things that Dave described hypothetically, he did in actual reality, and saved the day for the Prime Minister. And then on the political level, the way we tried to reinforce that is, I worked with the non Shia leaders, the Arab Sunni's and the Kurds, to be sure that they came out with strong statements of support for Maliki. And you had a moment there when you could see the country pulling together.

Gen. Petraeus: (20:09) It was an extraordinary moment, because right prior to that moment, in the month or two prior, the leadership of Iraq was turning against the Prime Minister.

Amb. Crocker: (20:18) To be honest here, We had our moments too with the prime minister.

Amb. McCarthy: (20:24) Did you do bad cop, good cop?

Gen. Petraeus: (20:25) Well, we were, we were about to say somebody should walk the plank, but it never quite got there.

Amb. Crocker: (20:30) Exactly, which would have been neither of us, but again, President Bush, as we were spooling this out in a VTC [Video Teleconference], basically told us both to go sit under a tree somewhere until this notion passed. And he, and he was right.

Gen. Petraeus: (20:47) He was, he was amazingly calm and composed and really a force of enormous strength during this whole period. Again, we start these weekly video conferences with the President of the United States and his national security team, and they immediately went out to us. It was not how people around the table, how do you think it's going out in Baghdad? It went directly to the Ambassador and to me, and we would say how it was going to Baghdad, in Iraq.

Amb. Crocker: (21:16) And these, these small things count if you're out there in the smoke, and the dust. He did it first thing in the morning, Washington time. So that...

Gen. Petraeus: (21:25) Start of the week, Monday morning.

Amb. Crocker: (21:27) So that, whatever was decided that we needed to implement, we would still have time that day. And it's, you know, taking care of your troops, and I always thought the Commander in Chief did that very, very well.

Gen. Petraeus: (21:45) Well, he really took ownership of the war in Iraq, and involved the whole government.

Amb. Crocker: (21:49) Well, one thing he did was of course to name a Deputy National Security Advisor whose only role was running the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, Doug Lute.

Gen. Petraeus: (22:01) The War Czar.

Amb. Crocker: (22:04) I talked to Doug every single morning, every single morning, to kind of give him the latest, and then he and Steve Hadley as boss would go in and brief the president, but it was having that connection that was, was just vital.

Amb. McCarthy: (22:19) What made you become a soldier and what made you become a diplomat?

Gen. Petraeus: (22:24) I grew up seven miles from West Point. Half of the customers on my newspaper route as a kid were either at West Point at the time, or retired military, or had some, were West Point graduates. And I think a lot in life is that you want to be like Mike, if you will, and to me, Mike was West Point cadets and it was products of the US Military Academy. I had enormous admiration for them and that's ultimately what led me to go to West Point, which then led to a military career.

Amb. Crocker: (22:59) It was a little more circuitous for me. My father was a career Air Force officer and I loved the life. I loved moving every couple of years. So I knew there was a Foreign Service from my time abroad. One summer I hitchhiked from Amsterdam to Calcutta, tried without success to catch handouts from embassies along the way. But at least I knew there were embassies. So I, the fall of my senior year, I took the foreign service exam. I was talking to Marine recruiters.

Amb. McCarthy: (23:31) Oh, so you also spoke to Marine recruiters?

Amb. Crocker: (23:31) Oh yeah, I was going to show my dad. I was going to be in a state of rebellion, that I was taking a stance against him. I wouldn't join the air force, I'd join the Marines. So I had lots of options out there: Peace Corps, grad school in France. The Foreign Service came through.

Amb. McCarthy: (23:53) And what would you say to young officers starting out in, you know, in either side about the need to have a relationship, as their careers progress, between each other?

Gen. Petraeus: (24:04) It's the greatest of privileges to serve one's country, whether in the military or in the State Department or a number of other, in the intelligence community or wherever. Beyond that though, the point would be that we can never succeed without the other. Almost all of the kinds of endeavors in which we're engaged right now, the so-called irregular warfare, requires people to work together, military and civilian; military, State Department, intelligence community, development workers, and on and on, depending on what the tasks are.

Amb. Crocker: (24:43) You know, the end of the Cold War dropped us into a very messy, complicated political, military world. So I would give you an example from my own past. I was ambassador to Kuwait, 1994 to 1997. October 1994 over the Columbus Day weekend, the intel community was picking up indicators of a multi-division move, by Saddam, heading straight south. And all the indicators were that this was not a training exercise. They were not organized or equipped consistent with that, that he was going to come in and test a new American, relatively new American president. So I didn't spend a lot of time on the phone to the Secretary of State at that point. I burned up the lines talking to the commander of Central Command, then Binnie Peay a four star army general who led the 101st hundred before David did. But you know, one of the things he said, he sent out his, one of his deputies a two-star, and told me over the phone, "whatever happens, don't let him get decisively engaged north of Kuwait City". So I hung up and said, well, that's interesting, General Peay wishes me to communicate that order to a two-star in a war zone. Saddam chose his time well. There was no carrier battle group in the Gulf when he moved. Scott Redd was then the commander of the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain. We were huddling, you know, what assets have you got that you could move north? Well, he had a short deck carrier, for amphibious operations, just VTOL [Vertical Take Off and Landing] aircraft and helicopters. But, if you had it in the right place, it kind of looked like a carrier. So he, he sent that up far enough out that you couldn't tell exactly how long it was or wasn't, but close enough in to be visible from shore. And it helped steady the Kuwaitis down. But again, the connections that an ambassador in these kinds of places has to have, may largely, will largely be on the military side.

Gen. Petraeus: (27:03) You know, when I was the commander of Central Command, after commanding the surge in Iraq, we used to bring together all of the ambassadors in the region together with all of our component commanders, the commanders of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine, special operations elements under Central Command. Again, just to again, facilitate this kind of relationship development, relationship maintenance, and then comparing of notes from one side to the other. And these were very, very valuable. We had very close relationships with all the ambassadors throughout the area of responsibility. And there was never any question who the Chief of Mission was. That was always the President's representative, the ambassador, but we worked very hard to provide help to them in a whole variety of different ways.

Amb. Crocker: (27:56) I view an aircraft carrier as a hundred thousand tons of diplomacy.

Gen. Petraeus: (28:02) You know, there's this old saying that diplomacy without force or the threat of force is like baseball without a bat, and there's a lot to that.

Amb. Crocker: (28:12) That's why with Scott Redd, well, we didn't have a hundred-thousand tonner, but we had something, and you go with what you got. What exactly is it that diplomats and ambassadors do? Well, you know, we negotiate. What kind of stuff? Well, in the case of Kuwait, we negotiated, I negotiated with the Minister of Defense for the construction of an entirely new prepositioned site, south of Kuwait City. Because if there was a quick strike out of Iraq, you could lose your prepositioned brigade set before you could fall in on it. So you had to have some, some ground behind you. They agreed to pay the whole freight. They still do. They pay our costs for the aircraft we base in Kuwait.

Gen. Petraeus: (28:59) I think they pay food, water and fuel, for everything.

Amb. Crocker: (29:02) Everything. And at a later point I was the lead negotiator with the Qataris for the facility in Al Udeid. We decided we would ask for everything, everything we could think, figuring they would whittle it down by 20% and we would still have an extremely good deal. The Foreign Minister walked into the room with our 200 pages, and his staff had been through it, he had just one question, "is this everything?" And I have been kicking myself ever since for [not] saying, "Well, there is one more thing. We would like you to pay the operating costs for Fort Hood forever."

Gen. Petraeus: (29:37) They actually gave us a check for $100 million, just to build the forward headquarters of US Central Command at this airbase, Al Udeid Airbase, outside Doha in Qatar. And that's after already having built all kinds of other facilities in an airfield that is so vast you could, we used to joke, that you could run out of gas just taxiing around it. So again, some of these host nations can be extraordinarily supportive and helpful. Of course, in return, we are in many respects, the defense policy for a number of the countries in that region.

Amb. McCarthy: (30:11) Well, gentlemen, thank you. Thank you very much from The General and the Ambassador: a Conversation, this has been a great conversation and I really appreciate your time.

Gen. Petraeus: (30:20) It has been a pleasure to be with you, and even more so to be reunited with my diplomatic partner from the surge, Ryan Crocker.

Amb. Crocker: (30:27) It is indeed, let's go out and do it all over again.