The Fight Over Benchmarks in Iraq

As the Democratic consensus in Washington stumbles reluctantly towards acceptance of Congressional funding for Iraq, there needs to be a clearer focus on the forthcoming issue of "benchmarks". If the Democrats act as tough negotiators, the benchmarks can become more than symbolic window-dressing. Since the current Baghdad regime is unlikely to comply with any meaningful benchmarks, a deeper showdown is almost guaranteed in the next six months.

Bush has retreated in the negotiations to include benchmarks in the appropriation process immediately ahead. The generals in the field will issue their verdict on the "surge" in September. If al-Maliki remains recalcitrant, and the surge continues to go nowhere, many in Congress will be obsessing about their political lives going into 2008.

Faced with the alternatives, Bush may opt for the "constitutional" overthrow of al-Maliki and his replacement by someone more pliable like the CIA asset Iyad Allawi or the neo-liberal former finance minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi. The response within the Iraqi parliament, with 144 signers of a withdrawal petition, promises to be volatile.

Bush will wish for changing faces in Baghdad's high places, but the structure of occupation will be threatened by powerful forces in both countries.

That is why the peace Democrats need to fight for enforceable benchmarks that clearly resonate with most Americans.

One benchmark to advocate for is an amendment to suspend US funding for any training, equipping or American advising of the sectarian militias hidden within the Iraqi interior and defense ministries. These are the foundation of the "El Salvador option" of low-visibility dirty war that some hope will last long after the departure of US combat troops.

This month is the agreed deadline for the "militia reform" measure agreed to in principle by al-Maliki, the White House and the Baker-Hamilton Report. Congress can ignore the deadline or insist on consequences for the continued violation of this measure.

As the Baker-Hamilton Report says on the subject of consequences, "if the Iraqi government does not make substantial progress towards the achievement of milestonesAC/a,!A|the United States should reduce its political, military, or economic support for the Iraqi government." [recommendation # 21]

If Congress is afraid to cut funding for American troops, how about direct or indirect funding for advisers to militias and death squads. Isn't "no taxes for torture" a supportable benchmark?

Other benchmarks already past their due date include:

By end of 2006-early 2007:

AC/a,!AC/ the provincial election law which would empower Sunnis where they are a majority [no progress];
AC/a,!AC/ the de-Baathification law [token progress amidst violent attacks on Sunni lawmakers];
AC/a,!AC/ by March 2007, a referendum on the constitution designed to accommodate Sunni interests [no progress];
AC/a,!AC/ by May, the militia control law [no progress], amnesty [no progress] , and completion of national reconciliation efforts [ditto].
AC/a,!AC/ Completion of non-sectarian petroleum law [stalled];

By June 2007:

AC/a,!AC/ holding of provincial elections [not happening so far];

From April to September 2007:

AC/a,!AC/ Iraqi control of the Iraqi army by April [not happening];
AC/a,!AC/ Greater Iraqi spending on its army [promised];
AC/a,!AC/ Iraqi control of all provinces and security self-reliance [unlikely at best].

Clearly any progress on these fronts will be chimerical, designed for media and congressional consumption. The gap between benchmarks and budgets will widen as next year's budget (yes, the election year budget), is only six months from preparation and delivery to a panicky Congress.

Here in the outback, we always listen to politicians, especially Republicans, calling for tough love, Georgia rules, consequences and boundaries, but they act like frightened flower children while their former Iraqi dependents turn into Frankenstein masters.

The coming calendar of flash-points includes:

AC/a,!AC/ between now and July, Congress either passes a toothless and token supplemental or one that recognizes that Iraq has become a sectarian state that harbors US-financed militias and ignores its own elected parliament;
AC/a,!AC/ between now and September, when the "surge" will be judged either as a public relations "success" or as a failure that has only expanded the range of insurgent violence;
AC/a,!AC/ between Labor Day until February 2008, when the shortened presidential primary season will dominate all politics;
AC/a,!AC/ Between September 2007 and November 2008 when the presidency and control of Congress will revolve around Iraq.

If Congress only demands full Iraqi compliance with the current benchmarks, and Iraq does the impossible and complies, that will be a good thing for the victims of ethnic cleansing and death squads while setting stage for modest withdrawals of US combat troops as the election season begins. Don't hold your breath, but be prepared too.

If Congressional benchmarks are exposed and denounced as window-dressing for the war, those foolish members of Congress will be targets for voter wrath for the following 18 months.

If Congress sets clear and enforceable benchmarks, the case for ending the war by "blaming the Iraqis" may become overpowering as the 2008 budgets and elections approach. The Iraqi parliament even may pass its resolution requesting and charting the withdrawal of American troops -- unless the CIA and US embassy subvert their will.

What began in November 2006 with the voter mandate for peace is far from over. It's not even intermission, and the American people are watching closely and taking names. The thunderclouds are being seeded, and unpredictable storms are nearing. Like they say, prepare for heavy weather.

Tom Hayden is a former state senator and leader of Sixties peace, justice and environmental movements. He currently teaches at PitzerCollege in Los Angeles. His books include The Port Huron Statement[new edition], Street Wars and The Zapatista Reader.

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