washingtonpost.com
Keep Your Eye on the Benchmarks

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
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. . . .

"'When the Americans give orders, people will be more against it,' [Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish legislator] said. 'That's what the Americans don't understand.'"

Raghavan doesn't even mention the failure to achieve the first and most concrete benchmark White House officials put forth back in January. When Bush first announced he was sending more American troops to Iraq, skeptical journalists asked the two senior administration officials briefing them why they should believe that the Iraqis would be able to meet their obligations this time around.

From the transcript: "You're going to have some opportunities to judge very quickly. The Iraqis are going to have three brigades within Baghdad within a little more than a month. They have committed to trying to get one brigade in, I think, by the first of February, and two more by the 15th."

But neither of those deadlines were met. (See my Feb. 16 and Feb. 28 columns.) In fact, it's not clear how fully manned or reliable the Iraqi divisions in Baghdad are to this day.

The Bush View

Bush acknowledges that there is much work that needs to be done, but nevertheless insists that some progress is being made. Here he is Tuesday, on the Charlie Rose show, talking about Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki: "He understands that we expect him to deliver on what they call benchmarks, but more importantly, the Iraqi people expect him to deliver on benchmarks, which is an oil-sharing law, provincial elections. . . . We believe that he ought to reexamine the de-Baathification law that will enable certain professionals that were, you know, Ba'ath Party members to reenter society in a way. In other words, there are certain things he has to do.

"He has met some benchmarks. In other words, there is some progress."

Rose: "Is he doing everything that you expected him to do when you announced a new strategy and a new general in your January speech?"

Bush: "In terms of the security operations, yes. He committed more troops and they've arrived. He said he's going to organize the city in a certain way, and he has done so. He's named a general, Aboud, who is in charge of the Baghdad security plan. So he's meeting expectations, as far as I'm concerned, and I think as far as our military folks are concerned, as far as the security.

"Now, is he moving -- any -- by the way, he did pass a budget, in which they're going to spend $10 billion of Iraqi money to help provinces rebuild and help local people realize the benefits of having a central government with some money. They've got to make sure that money actually makes it out into the hands of the local governments.

"But he's still got a lot of work to do."

The Importance of Benchmarks

Back in January, the Bush administration not only stressed the importance of benchmarks, but hinted that there would be considerable progress within a few months.

From that Jan. 10 briefing by senior administration officials: "It is clear that the Iraqi -- that the patience of the Iraqi people is running out, and, quite frankly, the patience of the American people is running out. And he's been very clear to the government leaders he's spoken to -- he spoke to a number of them this morning -- it is time for this government to perform.

"They have concluded that, as well. They have set forward this plan. They have brought forward these benchmarks. And what the President is saying is, fine, we will judge you now less on your words and more on your performance. . . .

"They have come forward with plans that are credible, and they have made commitments to resource those plans. We will see over the next several months whether they begin to make good on those commitments. And I think there is obviously skepticism, and the President has made that very clear to this government: People are skeptical -- your people are skeptical, our people are skeptical. I will support you, but you need to perform."

And at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Jan. 11, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice predicted significant progress within two or three months. Here is video of the hearing. This exchange with Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) comes up at 2:21.

Obama: "Are you telling me that if in six months or whatever time frame you are suggesting that in fact the Maliki government has not performed these benchmarks -- which, by the way, remain not sufficiently explicit, I think, for a lot of us to make decisions on, but let's assume that that surfaces over the next several weeks that this is being debated -- that at that point, you are going to suggest to the Maliki government that we are going to start phasing down our troop levels in Iraq?"

Rice: "Senator, I want to be not explicit about what we might do because I don't want to speculate. But I will tell you this, the benchmark that I'm looking at -- the oil law is important, the political process is extraordinary important -- that the most important thing that the Iraqi government has to do right now is to reestablish the confidence of its population that it's going to be even-handed in defending it. That's what we need to see over the next two or three months, and I think that over the next several months they're going to have to show that."

Obama: "Or else what? . . . "

Rice: "Or this plan -- or this plan is not -- this plan is not going to work."

Helene Cooper and David E. Sanger wrote in the New York Times last month: "The Bush administration, which six months ago issued a series of political goals for the Iraqi government to meet by this month, is now tacitly acknowledging that the goals will take significantly longer to achieve.

"In interviews this week, administration officials said that the military buildup intended to stabilize Baghdad and create the conditions for achieving the objectives would not be fully in place until June and that all of the objectives would not be fulfilled until the year's end.

"A 'notional political timeline' that the administration provided to Congress in January in an attachment to a letter from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, had called for most of the objectives to be met by this month."

Some Other Possible Yardsticks

Joshua Partlow writes in The Washington Post: "A new human rights report by the United Nations mission in Iraq described high levels of ongoing violence, an unfair and potentially abusive detainee system and a country suffering a 'breakdown in law and order.' The report upset the U.S. Embassy here, which characterized it as inaccurate and not credible.

"The 30-page report by the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq, an appraisal of human rights conditions from January through March, said the Iraqi government is up against 'immense security challenges in the face of growing violence and armed opposition to its authority and the rapidly worsening humanitarian crisis.'"

Tina Susman writes in the Los Angeles Times: "More than two months after the United States and Iraq launched a new plan to stanch the capital's violence, life for residents has become a game of choices dictated by concrete barriers, traffic-choking checkpoints and the latest market bombing.

"U.S. and Iraqi officials cite trends they say indicate progress: fewer death squad killings, a rising number of suspected insurgents detained, more troops on the ground. But such data mean little to Iraqis whose lives have been upended by invasion, civil war and now the latest security clampdown. For them, the plan is only as good as the calm it can bring to their neighborhoods, streets, and families. That has been as varied as the violence itself, which on any given day might result in 100 deaths, or 10.

"In interviews in Sunni, Shiite, and mixed areas where U.S. and Iraqi troops are now stationed, a minority of Iraqis said the security plan had made their lives better. Most said any optimism they had felt at the start had faded in the face of continued violence and additional headaches brought about by checkpoints and road closures."

State of Play

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "The House last night brushed aside weeks of angry White House rhetoric and veto threats to narrowly approve a $124 billion war spending bill that requires troop withdrawal from Iraq to begin by Oct. 1, with a goal of ending U.S. combat operations there by next March.

"The Senate is expected to follow the House's 218 to 208 vote with final passage today, completing work on the rarest of bills: legislation to try to end a major war as fighting still rages. Democrats hope to send the measure to the White House on Monday, almost exactly four years after President Bush declared an end to major combat in a speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. That would be a particularly pungent political anniversary for Bush to deliver only the second veto of his presidency."

Bush's Argument

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek that Bush's central argument against the Democratic proposal "is based on a doomsday scenario for Iraq, where troop withdrawals turn the country into a sanctuary for Al Qaeda and a battleground between regional powers. 'Precipitous withdrawal from Iraq is not a plan to bring peace to the region or to make our people safer at home,' Bush said. 'It could unleash chaos in Iraq that could spread across the entire region. It would be an invitation to the enemy to attack America and our friends around the world.'

"But in private, some of Bush's most senior aides dispute that scenario. One senior administration official with extensive knowledge of the region, who didn't want to be identified discussing sensitive policy matters, tells Newsweek that the chances of a regional war in Iraq are low in the event of a U.S. withdrawal. When asked if a regional war would break out, the official said: 'Possibly, not probably. It's more likely that other powers would support their favorite militias, as they're doing already.'"

Opinion Watch

The New York Times editorial board writes: "If President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney believe the belligerently partisan and misleading things they have been saying about Congress's war spending bill, their grip on the few options left in this disastrous war is even more tenuous than we'd guessed. The sooner Mr. Bush and his allies drop the pretense that military victory is still possible in Iraq and their charges of 'defeatism' against those who know better, the closer the nation will be to rescuing what can still be rescued from the debacle."

Richard Clarke writes in a New York Daily News op-ed: "Does the President think terrorists are puppy dogs? He keeps saying that terrorists will 'follow us home' like lost dogs. This will only happen, however, he says, if we 'lose' in Iraq. . . .

"How is this odd terrorist puppy dog behavior supposed to work? The President must believe that terrorists are playing by some odd rules of chivalry. Would this be the 'only one slaughter ground at a time' rule of terrorism?

"Of course, nothing about our being 'over there' in any way prevents terrorists from coming here. Quite the opposite, the evidence is overwhelming that our presence provides motivation for people throughout the Arab world to become anti-American terrorists. . . .

"[I]n the fantasyland of illogic in which the President dwells, shaped by slogans devised by spin doctors, America can 'win' in Iraq. Then, we are to believe, the terrorists will be so demoralized that they will recant their beliefs and cease their terrorist ways.

"In the real world, by choosing unnecessarily to go into Iraq, Bush not only diverted efforts from delivering a death blow to Al Qaeda, he gave that movement both a second chance and the best recruiting tool possible."

Poll Watch

Mark Murray writes for NBC News: "As the Democrat-controlled Congress and the White House clash over an Iraq spending bill, with President Bush vowing to veto it because it contains withdrawal deadlines, the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds that a solid majority of Americans side with the Democrats.

"In addition, a nearly equal number believe that victory in Iraq isn't possible, and about only one in eight think the war has improved in the three months since Bush called for a troop increase there."

The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) reports: "President Bush's approval rating slipped to new lows in the most recent Harris Interactive survey. . . .

"Of the 1,001 American adults polled online April 20-23, only 28% had a positive view of Mr. Bush's job performance, down from 32% in February and from a high of 88% in the aftermath of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001."

Political Briefings

R. Jeffrey Smith writes in The Washington Post: "White House officials conducted 20 private briefings on Republican electoral prospects in the last midterm election for senior officials in at least 15 government agencies covered by federal restrictions on partisan political activity, a White House spokesman and other administration officials said yesterday.

"The previously undisclosed briefings were part of what now appears to be a regular effort in which the White House sent senior political officials to brief top appointees in government agencies on which seats Republican candidates might win or lose, and how the election outcomes could affect the success of administration policies, the officials said.

"The existence of one such briefing, at the headquarters of the General Services Administration in January, came to light last month, and the Office of Special Counsel began an investigation into whether the officials at the briefing felt coerced into steering federal activities to favor those Republican candidates cited as vulnerable. . . .

"The administration maintains that the previously undisclosed meetings were appropriate. Those discussing the briefings on the record yesterday uniformly described them as merely 'informational briefings about the political landscape.' But House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), who has been investigating the GSA briefing, said, 'Politicization of departments and agencies is a serious issue. We need to know more about these and other briefings.'

"In the GSA briefing -- conducted like all the others by a deputy to chief White House political adviser Karl Rove -- two slides were presented showing 20 House Democrats targeted for defeat and several dozen vulnerable Republicans."

Paul Kiel writes for TPM Muckraker: "The entire scheme has been laid out before us. The question now is whether Karl Rove will get away with it."

Oversight Watch

Dan Eggen and Paul Kane write in The Washington Post: "Lawmakers approved new subpoenas yesterday for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other Bush administration officials, part of an expanding legal battle between the Democratic-controlled Congress and the administration over issues such as the firings of eight U.S. attorneys and flawed justifications for the war in Iraq.

"The subpoena issued to Rice seeks to force her testimony about the claim that Iraq sought to import uranium from Niger for its nuclear weapons program. President Bush offered that as a key rationale for the war in his 2003 State of the Union address. The subpoena was approved by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee along party lines, 21 to 10.

"The same panel also issued two subpoenas to the Republican National Committee for testimony and documents related to political presentations at the General Services Administration and the use of RNC e-mail accounts by White House aides, including presidential adviser Karl Rove.

"The House Judiciary Committee voted 32 to 6 to grant limited immunity from prosecution to Monica M. Goodling, the former senior counselor and White House liaison for Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales. She has invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in refusing to answer questions about her role in the prosecutor firings. The panel also authorized, but did not issue, a subpoena that would compel her to testify.

"And finally in the Senate, the Judiciary Committee authorized a subpoena for Rove deputy Sara Taylor, whose name has appeared among thousands of pages of e-mails and other documents released by the Justice Department in the U.S. attorney firings."

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post about the return of the legislative subpoena: "Republicans dubbed it 'Subpoenafest,' but it was nothing compared with the raise-the-roof subpoena bashes the Republicans threw during the Clinton administration. Waxman pointed out that the oversight committee issued 1,052 subpoenas to Democratic targets between 1997 and 2002, all without a debate or vote. During a 100-day period in 1997, Waxman said, then-Chairman Dan Burton (R-Ind.) issued subpoenas at the clip of two per day."

Dale McFeatters writes in an opinion piece for Scripps News: "Late in the day, the Bush administration is getting some of the same scrutiny the GOP-run Congress gave the Clinton administration. Turnabout is fair play and it could also mean better government."

AFP reports that Rice "signaled Thursday that she would not comply with a subpoena to appear before Congress to testify about discredited assertions on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction."

Rice said "that her White House work was covered by the constitutional principle of executive privilege, a principle presidents have in the past used to shelter aides from being forced to testify under oath in Congress."

New Data

In a letter to the House oversight committee, the Republican National Committee turned over a heavily caveated list with 37 names on it. It was described as a "current list of users who we believe are or were White House employees using RNC accounts for whom we have been able to identify active e-mail data on operational RNC servers." The RNC said more names may well show up later.

The RNC says it is "working diligently to identify and preserve all potentially relevant data that may exist" and has already gathered 25.5 million kilobytes of e-mail from the 37. It has also hired a computer forensics firm that has "imaged" several RNC computers and blackberries that are currently being used by White House employees.

The Associated Press has an annotated version of the list. The most prominent name on it, other than Karl Rove of course: Presidential counselor Dan Bartlett.

The Associated Press also reports: "The White House has turned over to a House committee about 200 pages of documents related to a contract with a company run by a man who pleaded guilty to bribing a congressman."

Tillman Watch

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush hopes someone is held responsible for the U.S. military's mishandling of information about the death of former football star Pat Tillman in Afghanistan, the White House said Wednesday.

"Bush did not learn about the unusual circumstances of the Army ranger's death until after the soldier's memorial service on May 3, 2004, said deputy press secretary Dana Perino."

Bush of course doesn't have to sit around hoping for people to be held responsible -- he could have ordered the Pentagon to do so long ago. But consider that in spite of Perino's denial, it's still not entirely clear what he knew and when.

Zachary Coile writes in the San Francico Chronicle: "Speculation about what Bush knew has been fueled by the release of a memo sent April 29, 2004, a week after Tillman's death in Afghanistan, in which Gen. John Abizaid, then chief of the U.S. Central Command, was urged by a top general to tell 'POTUS' -- the president of the United States -- that friendly fire was suspected.

"'I felt that it was essential that you received this information as soon as we detected it in order to preclude any unknowing statements by our country's leaders which might cause public embarrassment if the circumstances of Cpl. Tillman's death become public,' Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the military's special operations chief, wrote to Abizaid and other generals.

"Lawmakers also released an e-mail that said White House speechwriter John Currin had called Army officials six days after Tillman's April 22, 2004, death asking for more details about his Army service for a speech Bush was scheduled to give days later at the White House Correspondents Association dinner. Rumsfeld's speechwriter had also called the Army for information about Tillman, the e-mail said."

Cheney and bin Laden

Anna Johnson writes for the Associated Press: "A top Taliban commander said al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was behind the February attack outside a U.S. military base in Afghanistan during a visit by Vice President Dick Cheney, according to an interview shown Wednesday by Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera. . . .

"He did not say how he knew bin Laden planned the attack, and it was not clear when the interview took place."

Snow's Return

Ed Henry reports on CNN: "White House spokesman Tony Snow has just confirmed to CNN that he is now planning to come back to work next Monday and do the White House briefing, a comeback that's much sooner than a lot of people expected. You will remember, late last month, Tony Snow, it was reported here at the White House, that his cancer had recurred; it had spread from his colon to his liver, but Tony Snow telling me a moment ago -- quote -- 'I am expecting to be back Monday to work.'

"He also said that he will start chemotherapy next Friday, but said that he expects to be working through the chemotherapy. He said, if he has any problems during that treatment, he will -- quote -- 'dial it back.' But he noted that the first time, several years ago, when he had colon cancer, he had chemotherapy for six months, and worked six days a week at FOX News, both on radio and TV."

Poodle Watch

Tom Baldwin writes in the Times of London: "Tony Blair has felt unable to pick up his US Congressional Gold Medal of Honour for four years partly because the ceremony would reinforce the prejudices of those convinced he was 'some sort of poodle', says Sir David Manning, Britain's Ambassador in Washington."

Bush Dances

Frank James blogs for the Chicago Tribune, complete with video: "Malaria's a serious subject. But that doesn't mean you can't have a little fun at the Malaria Awareness Day event on the White House South Lawn, especially when people are dressed in colorful native costumes and bring along some African drums.

"Moved by the rhythms of the African drumming at the event, Bush tried to catch the beat for a little presidential dancing. Looks like he mostly missed it."

Savage Speaks

Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald interviews Boston Globe reporter Charlie Savage about the coverage of presidential signing statements that won Savage a Pulitzer Prize last week.

Greenwald: "What do you think are the defining attributes of quality political reporting?"

Savage: "I'll just mention one principle in particular which is important when writing about complex legal or policy matters: avoiding the easy route of 'he said, she said' reporting, which does no favors to readers who don't have the time to become specialists in the subject themselves.

"Sometimes government officials, seeking to 'muddy the coverage' (in the words of a DOJ spokeswoman's internal email that was recently turned over to a congressional committee looking into the US attorneys firings), put out misleading talking points that are intended to distract reporters and the public from the real story. In such a case, one must go beyond simply quoting the government official and give readers the information they need in order not to be misled."

Bush Gets a Purple Heart

Joyce May writes in the Cove Herald of Copperas Cove, Tex, about a Vietnam veteran named Bill Thomas who decided to give Bush one of the three Purple Hearts that he received in Vietnam.

"Thomas said he and his wife came up with the unprecedented idea to present the president with the Purple Heart over breakfast one morning a few months ago as they discussed the verbal attacks, both foreign and domestic, the commander in chief has withstood during his time in office.

"'We feel like emotional wounds and scars are as hard to carry as physical wounds,' Thomas said. . . .

"Thomas said he drew up a citation and he and his wife signed it before dropping it and the medal off with Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, to forward to President Bush.

"Carter later called Thomas to inform him that the president was very moved by the gesture and would like the couple to present it in person."

And that's what happened on Monday, in the Oval Office. Why exactly Bush felt that was appropriate is a pretty good question.

"'He said he didn't feel like he had earned it,' Thomas said."

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on Tillman; Don Wright on tracking White House job performance.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive