WASHINGTON --Ryan Crocker first earned his reputation for toughness as a young diplomat in Beirut in the mid-1980s, when he would go jogging with the Marine guards. The Marines gave him the code name "Popeye," after the spinach-chomping, straight-talking and decidedly unglamorous cartoon character.
"Like Popeye, Ryan is wiry and tough, and he does not go in for pretenses and fancy frills," said David Mack, a retired diplomat who served with Crocker in Lebanon.
Throughout his diplomatic career, Crocker, the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Iraq, has been known for his quiet competence. From his first posting in Khorramshar, Iran, in 1972 to the job of ambassador to Pakistan that he has held since 2004, Crocker has had a reputation as intellectually rigorous but relentlessly understated.
And that, some say, is what is needed in Iraq right now. "He's probably the best man for an impossible situation," said Mahmud Ali-Durrani, Pakistan's ambassador to the U.S.
American officials have come to the same conclusion. "Ryan's skills and style are particularly well-suited for this period," said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of U.S.-Iraqi relations. "It's a period where . . . the Iraqi government is aggressively sovereign and wants to be up front. Ryan is ... very much a behind-the-scenes kind of guy. That style will allow us to continue to play an important role, but also ensure we don't overpower the Iraqi government."
Crocker, 57, who is still awaiting a confirmation vote by the Senate and therefore not granting interviews, grew up in an Air Force family and went to school in Morocco, Canada and Turkey. Since joining the Foreign Service in 1971 he has been posted to Qatar, Iraq and Egypt, and served as ambassador in Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon.
A small-statured, lean man with a shock of white hair, he has been described by a colleague as a "tiny bundle of energy."
Despite holding a possibly unrivaled record of service in Arab countries, Crocker has avoided the reputation of being a pro-Arab ideologue that has dogged Arab-speaking Foreign Service officers in the past.
"He's one of the few surviving Arabists in the Foreign Service," said Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel. "But he's not like the old-time Arabists who were emotionally committed. He's just intellectually interested, and very objective."
If confirmed, Crocker will take over from Zalmay Khalilzad, who is known for the opposite approach - an overpowering diplomatic style. During Khalilzad's tenure in Baghdad, which began in June 2005, he pushed hard for a "national compact" to unite the country. Until the end of last year, he believed he could get the different factions to agree on a bargain that would tackle all the big issues at once - oil, de-Baathification, federalism and local elections.
But the Bush administration has switched tacks in Iraq since the congressional elections, emphasizing pragmatism over ideology. The Iraq strategy review introduced early this year concluded that a comprehensive agreement would be neither achievable nor effective, and instead called for "reconciliation with a small 'r' " - aiming for incremental successes while focusing on local-level reconciliation.
That is where Crocker fits in. "He will be willing and able to do the national ticket items, but he'll also recognize the value of the lower level, less headline-y things," said the senior administration official. "People were focused on getting the big enchilada before, but Ryan will appreciate the value of just trying to empower people in the field to get small successes on the ground throughout the country."
Crocker's performance in each of his postings has reflected this tendency toward modest realism - for better or for worse.
Husain Haqqani, who teaches international relations at Boston University and has been a consultant to the Pakistani government, noted that Crocker, as ambassador, has steered clear of criticizing Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. Haqqani cited that as an example of Crocker's emphasis on stability over ideology.
"He definitely does not have an overarching vision of transforming the world, like the neocons," he said. "Instead, he sees the role of diplomacy as dealing with the world as it is. But the truth sometimes lies in the middle."
Crocker first went to Baghdad in 1978, a year before Saddam Hussein seized power. There he met his future wife, Christine, who was Mack's secretary at the time. Life was difficult, with diplomats being subjected to constant surveillance and limited mobility, but Crocker seemed to thrive.
"If he has any faults, it's that he has no requirement for his own physical comfort, and he is hard on other people who might not be made of such stern stuff," said Mack, who recalled a dinner of crackers and canned peas at the Crockers' place in Beirut.
Colleagues point to Crocker's running as an example of his discipline. He rarely misses his morning run, even when it's in the middle of a war zone, with armed escorts if necessary.
The intensely private ambassador and his wife are accustomed to taking great personal risks. In Damascus in 1998, Syrian mobs invaded their residence to protest a bombing campaign in Iraq, forcing Christine Crocker to hide in a safe room as the house was ransacked.
Crocker was later compensated by President Hafez el Assad's government for his prized library on the Middle East, which was destroyed.
Walker, who was then assistant secretary for Near East affairs, spoke to Crocker by phone at the time, intending to order him to close the embassy. But Crocker insisted that that was not necessary. "With anyone else, I would have overridden it," said Walker. "But I knew with Ryan that he had a better feel for what was going on."
Crocker returned to Washington to work in the State Department's Near East bureau from 2001 to 2003. A major responsibility was smoothing relations with ambassadors from Arab countries, who in the post-Sept. 11 environment faced a rash of new problems.
"We had a lot of issues regarding the treatment of VIPs at the airport, student visas, that kind of thing - and he was a great listener," said Abdulwahab al-Hajjri, the ambassador from Yemen who has worked in Washington for much of the past decade. "He made an effort to do periodic lunches with all the ambassadors from his region, and was one of the most accessible people at the State Department."
Like some other members of the administration's new team in Baghdad, Crocker has been outspoken about the mistakes made in Iraq. In the lead-up to the 2003 invasion, he predicted that toppling Hussein would unleash simmering ethnic and sectarian tensions and that neighbors such as Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia would try to intervene.
After the fall of Hussein's regime, Crocker returned to Baghdad to lead the governance team of the Coalition Provisional Authority. During his time there, colleagues say, Crocker was well-liked and trusted by different Iraqi factions, which was unusual then and now.
The palace formerly owned by Hussein that housed the CPA was intensely difficult to work in.
"Everyone was frustrated," said the senior administration official. "It was about 110 degrees all the time, the computers would be breaking down, and we'd all have to be careful not to lean over them because our sweat was dripping into our computers and destroying them. And in that environment, he pulled together a totally disparate group of people ... and gave us some leadership, some purpose."
Crocker stayed in Baghdad until the summer of 2003, then left in what some colleagues say was frustration with the project unfolding inside the Green Zone and frustration with L. Paul Bremer III, the American diplomat who ran the CPA.
"Ryan was one of the heavyweights on Bremer's foreign policy team, and he was not utilized as well as he should have been," said Qubad Talabani, the U.S. representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government. "Partially, this was because he had a very good understanding of the Middle East and Bremer didn't."
When Crocker left Baghdad that time around, Jalal Talabani, Qubad's father and now president of Iraq, threw a dinner at his house, and Crocker was presented with a painting by a famous Iraqi artist of a palm grove.
He left it in the palace because he felt it was part of Iraqi heritage and did not want to take it out of the country. It hung in Bremer's office for a long time.
Now, however, it might finally be reclaimed.
Bay Fang writes for the Chicago Tribune.