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The New York Times reports on America's transitioning role in Iraq - which still involves U.S. soldiers hunting and killing insurgents and engaging in combat operations while employing some artful spin about the U.S. role in those actions. Part of the idea, it seems, is to make the U.S. presence more palatable to both Iraqi and American audiences by being somewhat vague about what that role is.

Which leads us to former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker's article in the National Interest. Crocker argues that the U.S. needs to maintain a hands-on approach with respect to Iraq's political development. While I think there's a very strong case to be made for continued diplomatic engagement with Iraq as the country struggles to regain its footing, there's a problem with Crocker's conceptual framework:

Iran and Syria have had a bad few years in Iraq, but they are willing to wait. Patience is not our strong suit. Over the years, in the broader Middle East, our allies have come to fear our strategic impatience, and our adversaries to count on it. Our disengagement from Pakistan and Afghanistan after the Soviet retreat in 1989 ultimately gave al-Qaeda the space to plan the 9/11 attacks. Now we are back; but in Afghanistan in 2002 and in Pakistan from 2004 to 2007, I found many who wondered when we would head for the exits again.

Iran and Syria are "willing to wait" because they live there. They don't have a choice. The United States, fortunately, does have a choice. Another way of stating Crocker's strategic patience argument is to simply state that countries with a deeper interest in a given situation will do more than a country that does not. Rather than acknowledge this, we're enjoined to display "strategic patience" by persisting in a given engagement simply to demonstrate to other regional actors that we have "staying power."

But in a world of limited resources, you have to make choices based on a hierarchy of priorities. In Crocker's piece he singles out two countries as evidence of American strategic impatience - Lebanon and Afghanistan - without ever arguing why they would demand pride of place among other competing interests.

The problem with this "strategic patience" argument is that the U.S. - as Crocker admits in the piece - frequently looks before it leaps with respect to its far-too-numerous military interventions. After having committed a blunder, we're then enjoined to continue our investment lest regional bad actors press their advantage.

But take the Afghanistan example above, can Crocker, or anyone, offer a remotely plausible scenario which sees the U.S. "engaged" in Afghanistan in the 1980s that prevents the rise of al Qaeda internationally? Bin Laden wasn't even in Afghanistan until 1996. As we're learning now, the problem in Afghanistan isn't American engagement or lack thereof, it's Pakistan's regional interests. Maybe there was a magical formula available to the U.S. in the 1980s that changes Pakistan's interests in Afghanistan so that it didn't use the country as a dumping ground for the ISI's fundamentalists. But I doubt it.

I think there's a great case to be made for strategic patience as a general concept, but in the Crocker formulation it seems to be a case of persisting with a military endeavor long after it's become obvious to most people that the costs have outweighed the benefits. Indeed, the time to demonstrate strategic patience is before the U.S. reaches for the military tool, not after, especially when it comes to places, like Lebanon and Afghanistan, of limited strategic value to the United States.