BAGHDAD -- Twenty-five years ago, a young American Foreign Service officer named Ryan Crocker was dealing with sectarian militias and suicide bombers in Lebanon.
Today, as U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Mr. Crocker is confronting a mess that makes Lebanon look simple by comparison. His mission is to deal with the political piece of the Iraq puzzle in tandem with Gen. David Petraeus, commander of multinational forces in Iraq, who oversees military efforts.
In reality, the two jobs are intertwined. These two men have become the face of the Bush administration's efforts to salvage Iraq.
"Dave's problems are my problems, and my problems are Dave's problems," Mr. Crocker told me in an interview in his embassy office in a former Saddam Hussein palace.
In other words, the military effort to curb Baghdad violence is aimed at creating breathing space for Iraqi politicians to act, and the strategy cannot work unless they do so.
"It's space for Iraqis to come together," Mr. Crocker said, "and to make decisions for the common good and for Iraqi security forces to develop."
The megamillion-dollar question is whether a weak Iraqi government will take advantage of any security progress.
I asked Mr. Crocker what his hopes were for the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has become notorious for surrounding himself with staffers whose primary qualification is membership in the Dawa, his Shiite religious party. Mr. Crocker admitted that "the prime minister's office doesn't work very well." Few expect this performance to improve much. Nor is Mr. al-Maliki likely to meet the deadlines for the "benchmarks" on which Congress and the White House are fixated.
So where, then, does Mr. Crocker find hope that the situation in Iraq can improve? First, there is always a possibility that Mr. al-Maliki will rise to the occasion. In the wake of the bombing of a holy Shiite shrine last week, Mr. Crocker said, Mr. al-Maliki "looked like a leader ... doing well under pressure." His swift imposition of a curfew and his speech to the country have helped prevent - so far - a repetition of the killing that followed an earlier bombing of the same shrine.
Second, Mr. Crocker said, the government could develop a capacity to get more done. One possibility is making better use of the Iraqi presidency, a troika that involves President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, along with Shiite Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi and Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi. These three work well together across communal and sectarian lines, and if they join in a foursome with Mr. al-Maliki, that might increase the government's capacity to get things done.
Third, there is the real chance of a breakthrough in fighting al-Qaida that could have an impact on the political scene.
"Al-Qaida, through its behavior, has outrun the tolerance of a wide swath of Iraqi Sunnis," Mr. Crocker said. He refers to the growing alliance against al-Qaida of tribal leaders in Anbar province and parts of Baghdad.
"The tribes did that on their own," the ambassador points out. "A collective judgment emerged of al-Qaida as an enemy of the tribes."
The terrorist group specializes in spectacular and heinous bombings against Shiites that increase Shiite support for militias, which, in turn, kill Sunnis. If that circle of violence were broken, it might be easier to reach accommodation between sects.
"You cannot focus on the political piece, and have leaders who will work across communal lines, if you have widespread sectarian violence," the ambassador said.
Mr. Crocker is not a man of illusions. He said bluntly: "It is not reasonable to think Iraqis will have turned themselves into a functioning polity by September" - the date when he and General Petraeus will be reporting on Iraq progress to Congress. Nor will Iraqis have security forces by then that are capable of maintaining the peace.
"Two years is a more reasonable amount of time" for such advances, he said. More ominously, as the point man in nascent U.S. talks with Iran over Iraq, Mr. Crocker is doubtful that Iran is ready to stop its destabilizing role in the country.
Yet he said he believed gains in one problem area would affect others and create openings for progress that we cannot see now. This, presumably, is what gets him through every tough Baghdad day.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays in The Sun. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.