We can’t let the hawks define our strategic patience as weakness
Until last summer, the term “strategic patience” most commonly described President Obama’s approach to North Korea. One essay defined it as “refraining from actively pursuing regime change” from a “belief that the status quo, while less than ideal, is better than many possible consequences of taking action.” A patient strategy was one of restraint, which received wide criticism from those favoring active measures.
After the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, however, critics repurposed the phrase to lament what restrainers allegedly lacked. Loudest among these was former Ambassador Ryan Crocker. In the New York Times and before Congress, his “overarching answer” to what went wrong in Afghanistan was “our lack of strategic patience at critical moments, including from President Biden.
“Societal change is a slow process,” Crocker continued. In Afghanistan, the United States simply lacked the resolve to see it through. A chorus of voices subsequently echoed this diagnosis, including former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmusssen. To learn the right lessons from the war, Rasmussen argued, the West “must show more patience in assisting emerging democracies.”
This takeaway begs all the relevant questions about what the United States and its military should undertake in the first place. Societal change is a slow process — but this only undermines the wisdom of attempting to orchestrate it militarily. Modern democracies have limited will to war over non-vital interests, and limited success in doing so without broad public buy-in. Given these limitations, Western strategists would be better served by the earlier form of patience.
The newer form is dangerous for at least three reasons. First, it valorizes can-do bias, and renders over ambition unfalsifiable. If an intervention achieves its goals, its advocates boast of happy outcomes. If not, they scold us for being impatient. This is true no matter how long we’ve already waited. Crocker trumpeted “strategic patience” in Afghanistan at least as early as 2011, and in Iraq in 2007 — just as similar pitches were made midway through the Vietnam War. Non-intervention is rarely afforded such open-ended timeframes. Back when patience described refraining from confrontation, Brookings warned somberly that “Strategic Patience Has Become Strategic Passivity,” a mere two years into Obama’s first term.
This thin distinction between patience and passivity ultimately boils down to who is right. Sometimes the current policy is best and leaders should stick with it. Other times it isn’t, and leaders should change course. Appealing to the virtue of patience does not help identify which times are which; it merely prejudices debate in favor of the status quo. To be patient even when an objective may not be achievable on any timeline — even if the mission is self-defeating, the goal ever-shifting, or the measure of progress unspecified — is a recipe for blank check thinking.
Second, preaching patience with war trains warfighters to strategize as if scarce resources were inexhaustible. These include the cliché “blood and treasure,” but also strategic attention, military training hours, and diplomatic capital in an evolving security landscape. Popular will to fight and spend is the ultimate arbiter of just how scarce these resources are — but willpower, too, has limits over time. These limits cannot be ignored, and pretending otherwise sets our military up to fail.
Crocker and his sympathizers are right about one thing: if the war in Afghanistan could have succeeded, it would have required a much more patient nation. But he’s wrong about whose job it was to adapt accordingly. Americans’ desire to end the war quickly had been obvious, bipartisan, and intensifying for more than a decade. Three straight presidents promised to bring the troops home, and then took steps to do so. Nobody should be blindsided that one of them finally followed through.
Even those with infinite patience must learn to take no for an answer. Otherwise, patience becomes a euphemism for ignoring Americans’ objection to the violence waged in their name. At least two-thirds of Americans felt it no longer served their interests to fight a bloody, protracted war propping up a corrupt government, in but one of many places from which terrorists might operate. Admonitions to be patient did not answer their concerns.
Besides, even Crocker concedes strategic patience is “not the norm” in U.S. history. How foolish, then, to undertake wars that depend on it? The United States and its military would be better served to treat patience with war as a scarce resource, the availability of which is mostly beyond their control. If a mission is not achievable on a timeline and cost acceptable to the American people, it is not achievable at all, and should not be attempted or continued.
Finally, blaming wartime failures on impatience at best oversimplifies the long list of shortcomings that so frayed Americans’ patience in the first place. If the United States could ever have installed a self-sufficient liberal democracy in Afghanistan — which is a big if — it would probably have required a lighter military presence throughout: one that didn’t kill, injure, or imprison so many innocents, and didn’t become unwitting henchmen for this or that warlord.
Moreover, it would have probably needed less (but more accountable) spending that didn’t befoul the nascent government with the odor of an un-Islamic rentier state. It would have required policymakers deeply sensitive to Afghanistan’s history and social dynamics, serving longer tours of duty, with permission to leave gated compounds even at increased personal risk. It would have needed more seamless coordination between the military, intelligence, diplomatic, and developmental arms of the project, as well as between allied military forces.
In other words, it would have required institutions unrecognizable from those actually present in or deployed by the United States. If you want the American people to be patient with nation-building amid a foreign civil war, build such institutions first. Until then, the 20 years Americans did give to the Afghanistan project demonstrated patience aplenty.
The solution, then, is not to abandon patience, but to properly reframe it as strength through restraint. A patient nation is not quick to insert itself in peripheral conflicts abroad. If it does insert itself, it does not so reflexively reach for its military, much less hemorrhage resources in endless war. It keeps its eye on the ball, and keeps limited interests in their proper long-term perspective.
In strategic competition, patience calls for investment in the internal systems required to outlast rivals over the long haul. For example, America’s competition with China will ultimately depend on each nations’ relative appeal and productivity over several decades — not on what Taiwan looks like in 2027. Nations with strong economies, civil liberties, innovation, education, and soft power can afford to be patient militarily.
In development efforts, patience entails contenting oneself with incremental improvement — but also recognizing when you’ve done all you can. Sweeping social progress is rarely imposed from afar, on any timeline. The West must not be in such haste to accelerate development abroad that it actually winds up setting it back, as prolonged war so often does.
In this sense, restrainers are more patient than hawks. They may doubt social change is accelerated by the presence of foreign armies, but they do know it takes time. In fact, such drastic change as Global South nations “getting to Denmark” may take centuries — and restrainers appear to be the only ones patient enough to wait for it to happen peacefully.
The problem is not patience itself, but using patience as code for staying the course with an overambitious strategy that the experience of the past two decades should discredit. Do not allow the architects of our Middle Eastern blunders to recast their fool’s errand as sage wisdom abandoned too soon. The project did not fail because American strategists lacked the patience to see it through. It failed because American strategists lacked the foresight to constrain their ambition by what was achievable in the time they had.