Michael O'Hanlon's latest in the Washington Post (with Ann Gildroy) offers a chance to step back and assess the emerging argument for "strategic patience" which I suspect will become central to the upcoming national debate. What strikes me most about these arguments is their refusal to spell out the mechanisms by which they expect to see American military presence translate into a happy ending, to frankly assess the conditions under which an American drawdown would become possible, to specify indicators which would suggest that their approach is not working, and their refusal to think seriously about the strategic incentives created by different American postures. Instead, it's just a "magic box": keep the troops in place and hope for the best.
This is admittedly an unusal piece in the genre. It's somewhat baffling that an article entitled "How this can end" offers no actual suggestion as to "how this can end". O'Hanlon and Gildroy offer "six key reasons that such strategic patience is appropriate" - none of which actually involve a significant role for the American military presence (Basra, refugee return, Kirkuk, an oil law, elections, and "overwatch" of Iraqi forces). I'm not sure whether to congratulate them for strategic restraint or to criticize them for not mentioning al-Qaeda in Iraq, Sadr, the Awakenings, or Iran. But more to the point, they offer no suggestion at all as to how American military forces would shape those "critical issues" (or when they do the argument is just bizarre, as in the suggestion that US forces will lead Iraqis to forgo sectarian voting).
This strikes me as the crux of the problem. Other contributions to the strategic patience, such as the collected works of the Kagans, go into far more detail. But overall, beyond the "bottom-up reconciliation" theme which seems to have dropped out of late, the 'strategic patience' position consistently fails to present as argument for how the US military presence will bring about the desired endstate. The position seems to assume, as Colin Kahl has put it, that Iraqi leaders want to reconcile but the absence of security prevents compromise. US forces provide security, and thus reconciliation will follow if US forces remain. As O'Hanlon and Gildroy sneer, "Those who claim that accelerating our drawdown will foster greater Iraqi political compromise and reconciliation do not, in our experience, understand the motives and the reasoning of most Iraqis." But do they? Why, one might ask, has the large military presence they favor translated into so little influence over Iraqi political decisions?
Both evidence and logic suggest that the assumptions behind "strategic patience" are wrong. Based on what they actually do, the leading Iraqi actors seem to prefer to pursue their sectarian or factional interests over making painful compromises. Rather than giving them the space to compromise, the US military presence allows the current leadership to get away with not making such difficult accommodations. It's obviously true that we don't know what would happen should the US commit to a drawdown or withdrawal. But we do know that the Iraqi politicians have largely failed to compromise and reconcile with the American troop presence as it stands. And we do know that these politicians have every incentive to tell O'Hanlon and friends what they want to hear, since their own political survival depends on the US presence but they would prefer not to have any serious pressure placed upon them to make painful compromises.
In short, strategic patience gives us the worst of all worlds: an open-ended commitment to a massive military presence, combined with a self-imposed abdication of strategic leverage over Iraqi actors. I can understand why Iraqi leaders would prefer this. I can't at all understand why Americans would.
Much of the strategic patience argument simply refuses to consider serious drawdown scenarios, relying instead on an intellectually lazy embrace of worst-case scenarios for withdrawal and best-case scenarios for "patience" (and for the record, I think that withdrawal advocates have an equal obligation to carefully consider bad scenarios). I would point to the need to carefully consider the logic of the "shadow of the future" and the different ways in which groups might re-calculate their self-interest in different scenarios (I made a stab at it here, which may or may not get it right). Under some conditions, a US withdrawal might create the conditions for sectarian war, but under other conditions the rational response to an American drawdown for those who benefit from US military support would be to strike deals quickly while the terms favor them. For other actors, there would be incentives to hedge against the possibility of a sectarian war by entering the political process more seriously (something suggested repeatedly by both the Sadrists and the leaders of key Sunni insurgency factions). This approach offers no guarantees, but it gets the incentives right - and allows the US to actually try to shape political incentives instead of passively accepting "conditions on the ground" as an exogenous (and politically convenient) reality.
There are good reasons to think that an American drawdown aimed at withdrawal would force these Iraqi leaders to accommodate by changing their calculations of self-interest. Years of "strategic patience" clearly have not had this effect - and have probably reinforced their intransigence - and "patience" advocates have yet to offer any plausible reason to think that it will in the future. Steve Biddle, the most serious advocate of the patience position I know, frankly admits that the need for US forces to prevent renewed sectarian violence will still be there in 2010 and for decades to come. That has the virtue of being honest, even if I think that it radically overstates the stability of the current arrangements and American willingness to maintain such a commitment and radically understates the possibility of escaping the strategic trap through a new approach.
Just keeping high troop levels on the ground and hoping for the best, paying heavy costs for little influence, is the height of strategic naivite. It largely avoids working through the tough questions of how the US might best exercise influence, where the interests of Iraqi factions might conflict with ours, or how an unlimited American military commitment shapes Iraqi incentives. So let's have a debate about that - have at it!