Keep Your Eye on the Benchmarks

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Thursday, April 26, 2007; 1:54 PM

Editor's Note: White House Watch is on vacation Friday, April 27, and will resume publication Monday.

There is one thing that pretty much everyone agrees on regarding the situation in Iraq: Without Iraqi political progress, there is no chance for U.S. troops there to achieve their mission of leaving behind a peaceful country. There is even widespread agreement on some key benchmarks of political progress, and on how critically important it is that the Iraqi government achieve them.

Here's President Bush in his Jan. 10 prime-time address to the nation: "A successful strategy for Iraq goes beyond military operations. Ordinary Iraqi citizens must see that military operations are accompanied by visible improvements in their neighborhoods and communities. So America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced."

The debate between Democrats and the White House over the war at this point is, at its heart, about whether those benchmarks can reasonably be achieved in a reasonable amount of time.

Democrats want to establish some firm deadlines for progress; Bush refuses to do so. Implicit in the Democratic position is that those benchmarks very likely won't get met anytime soon, so it's time to start planning a withdrawal. Implicit in the Bush position is that they will be met -- eventually.

Which side has a clearer vision of reality, therefore, would appear to be a matter of great significance.

Sudarsan Raghavan writes in The Washington Post this morning that "there has been little or no progress in achieving three key political benchmarks set by the Bush administration: new laws governing the sharing of Iraq's oil resources and allowing many former members of the banned Baath Party to return to their jobs, and amendments to Iraq's constitution. As divisions widen, a bitter, prolonged legislative struggle is hindering prospects for political reconciliation. . . .

"Other benchmarks such as provincial elections, a political agreement on dismantling militias and a program for reconciliation announced last July also have not moved forward, Iraqi officials said. . . .

"U.S. military commanders say a key goal of the ongoing security offensive is to buy time for Iraq's leaders to reach political benchmarks that can unite its fractured coalition government and persuade insurgents to stop fighting.

"But in pressuring the Iraqis to speed up, U.S. officials are encountering a variety of hurdles: The parliament is riven by personality and sect, and some politicians are abandoning Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government. There is deep mistrust of U.S. intentions, especially among Shiites who see American efforts to bring Sunnis into the political process as an attempt to weaken the Shiites' grip on power."

U.S. officials apparently face a particular conundrum in that the harder they push, the slower the Iraqis are.

"Many Iraqi politicians view the U.S. pressure as bullying that reminds them they are under occupation. And the security offensive, bolstered by additional U.S. forces, has failed to stop the violence that is widening the sectarian divide. . . .

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