New York — There are few American diplomats with a longer list of accomplishments than Ryan Crocker.
Crocker, who was once affectionately called "America's Lawrence of Arabia" by former President George W. Bush, boasts a 37-year State Department career in which he served in the most challenging postings across the Middle East: Lebanon under George H.W. Bush; Kuwait and Syria under Bill Clinton; Pakistan and Iraq under George W. Bush; and most recently, Iraq and Afghanistan under President Barack Obama.
It's exactly this resume, spanning four different presidents with four different approaches to foreign policy, which makes Crocker's blistering criticism of President Obama's legacy in the Middle East all the more potent. In an exclusive interview with Mic at the Common Good Forum in New York City, Crocker was surprisingly candid in expressing his disapproval of Obama's foreign policy.
"This is a very disengaged administration," Crocker said. "Disengaged in the Middle East. Disengaged in Europe. It's a diplomacy of non-involvement. It's a fundamental change in the way America has conducted foreign policy since World War II."
Obama's former Afghanistan ambassador pulled no punches.
"Yes, he has done things that I give him credit for," he continued. "The Vietnam initiative was important, and I support his opening to Cuba. But I do not think it is going to be a very positive legacy for him."
"Overall it's going to be judged negatively."
Why he's unhappy. The bulk of Crocker's criticism centered around Syria, a country around which Obama has encountered frequent criticism from other top foreign policy experts for failing to do more to stop President Bashar al-Assad.
Crocker expressed his view that Obama should have imposed a no-fly zone over Syria — a strategy former Secretary of State and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has also endorsed — to prevent Assad from killing his own people.
"It's a crucial humanitarian and political step," Crocker said. "Tens of thousands of Syrians are dying because of Assad's barrel bombs. It's a humanitarian imperative to stop that. A no-fly zone would be a major step."
Obama has heard that criticism before, and on a recent episode of David Axelrod's "The Axe Files" podcast, White House deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes rejected the strategy outright. "A no-fly zone in Syria would not solve the problem," Rhodes said. "We would have to devote an enormous amount of our resources — which are currently devoted to finding ISIL and killing them wherever they are — to maintaining this no-fly zone. So it's just not a good use of resources."
Still, Crocker insisted a no-fly zone could help shake up the political dynamic inside Syria at a time when the country is mired in a seemingly endless cycle of violence and chaos. "Right now, Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers are not going to negotiate anything. They are just going to keep on killing. A no-fly zone would not bring Assad down, but it could weaken him and weaken his ability to prosecute this war," he said.
Crocker also attacked Obama for failing, in his view, to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis head on. An estimated 4.8 million people have fled Syria as refugees since the country's brutal Civil War began in 2011 — amounting to the largest refugee crisis since World War II. Despite such a humanitarian tragedy, according to Crocker, Obama has been absent.
"Europe is more divided than it has been because of the refugee crisis, and they can't cope with it. This is a humanitarian crisis. It's a security crisis for the region, the world and us. [This moment] requires real U.S. leadership, internationally and nationally," Crocker said.
Even though Obama has pledged to accept 10,000 refugees, that number is just a drop in the bucket compared to what America's European allies have pledged. Germany, for example, accepted one million refugees in 2015 alone. Crocker said Obama should have pledged to accept 100,000 refugees to help stem the tide of the crisis — despite the potential blow to his approval rating from such an unpopular political position.
"Is it unpopular? Of course it is. But this is where leadership counts. To remind the country we are a nation of immigrants and refugees. We've got to have skin in the game."
Friction over Iran. Crocker also shared concerns over Obama's handling of Iran. While Crocker said he supports the Iranian nuclear deal — despite vast opposition from congressional Republicans, including presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump — he believes Obama has failed more broadly to check Iran's growing influence in the Middle East.
That has been another frequent criticism of Obama — that he has strained America's relationships with key allies Israel and Saudi Arabia. The President sought to clear the air on a recent visit to Riyadh and has also said publicly that he's done more to strengthen Israel's security than any other president.
But Crocker disagreed. "We have very strained relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel, and we're not paying much attention to Jordan. That is not where we want to be," he said. "I would have liked to see us do the nuclear deal, and then get in the Iranians faces in Syria and Iraq and everywhere else they are exerting more influence."
Trump even worse. Despite his wide-ranging criticism of Obama, Crocker was clear to emphasize that Donald Trump would be a disaster for the Middle East.
"There is already a fairly firm impression in the Middle East that the U.S. under current leadership is anti-Arab, or at least, anti-Sunni Arab. Then you add Trump. It's their worst nightmare," Crocker said.
Of chief concern for Crocker is Trump's repeated calls for a ban on Muslims entering the United States, a pronouncement which he says has reverberated negatively across the region. "Trump would make it a declared active policy that the United States is against Arabs and against Muslims. In Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon, you just hear this everywhere. It will not be good."
But it's not just a matter of Trump's provocative statements. Trump regularly garners some of his most raucous applause lines on the campaign trail when he brazenly calls to "knock the hell out of ISIS." Crocker rejected that strategy outright.
"It's not military might that's going to drive the Islamic State from its strongholds. It's soft power. It's political engagement. It's developing relationships with area leaders and pushing for changes to make their countries more stable. We have to be in the middle of it, but not with troops. With social development programs that make sense," Crocker said.
President Hillary Clinton? So if he's critical of Obama and also rejects a Trump presidency, where does that leave Crocker on his former boss at the State Department, Hillary Clinton?
He had only glowing things to say.
"She gets it. She knows how the world works. She has a good sense of the U.S. role in the world and would put us back on a path of strong engagement in the Middle East and in the world generally. She knows how this is done," Crocker said.