Diplomacy and culture

politics and culture — By on June 15, 2007 at 11:55 am

In the most recent edition of Newsweek, there is a story about Ryan Crocker, the new U.S. ambassador to Baghdad. In the middle of the article are some excerpts which indicate that Crocker takes the role of culture seriously and that he goes out of his way to learn about the country he is working in.

“My checkered past has taught me a few things,” he says. “One of them is respect for other people’s reality. Iraq has its own reality, its own institutions, its own way of doing things, certainly its own problems that will have to be solved in Iraqi terms. Understanding why they approach things as they do is pretty important.”

He knows Iraq intimately. In the late 1970s, when foreign diplomats were kept under strict surveillance by young Saddam Hussein’s regime, Crocker somehow wangled permission to travel the length of the Euphrates River valley. He drove off in a Toyota Land Cruiser, giving lifts to hitchhiking (and talkative) Iraqi soldiers along the way for 10 days until he reached Qaim, on the Syrian border, where horrified authorities detained him for several hours before sending him back down the river.

“Ryan takes the trouble to get out and really understand the country he’s working in,” says one of Crocker’s former colleagues, Ambassador David Mack.

The article even provides a glimpse of some of the cultural insights Crocker has gained through his in-country experiences, such as how Arab Bedouins view time:

As a young Foreign Service officer studying intensive Arabic, Crocker spent a month with a family of Bedouin shepherds in Jordan’s fabled Wadi Rum. “I learned 27 different words for camel,” he says. More important, he also learned how the region’s tribesmen recall events as vividly as if they happened last week “when actually they date back 300 or 400 years, through the mists of time.”

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