GOP Sidesteps Benchmarks As Democrats Look For Footing

Democrats are crying foul over the Bush administration's shifting standards for progress in the Iraq war. While the Bush administration, since the summer of 2006, had pushed for a set of "benchmarks" to measure success in Iraq, the White House now seems prepared to ignore independent analysis of those benchmarks and to present its own carefully vetted report to be delivered by General Petraeus as early as next week.

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released this week - based on studies of intelligence data, military reports, interviews of on-the-ground commanders and Iraqi government officials, and more - shows that the Iraqi government has met the conditions of only 3 benchmarks of a total of 18 requested by the president as early as the summer of 2006 and reiterated in March and passed by Congress in May 2007.

In its assessment, the non-partisan GAO reported: "Overall, key legislation has not been passed, violence remains high, and it is unclear whether the Iraqi government will spend $10 billion in reconstruction funds."

The only legislative benchmark achieved was the Iraqi government's passage of a bill that legally protects the rights of minority parties. But Sunni groups remain excluded on the whole from the Shia-dominated government.

Only two security benchmarks have been achieved. Both, however, are related to setting up security and public relations offices designed to support the US troop escalation. Neither benchmark is an actual measure of the reduction of violence in Iraq.

The report noted that "[t]he government has not eliminated militia control of local security, eliminated political intervention in military operations, ensured even-handed enforcement of the law, increased army units capable of independent operations, and ensured that political authorities made no false accusations against security forces."

It further found that the key security benchmark of reduced sectarian violence has not been met. The report showed that "average daily attacks against civilians have remained unchanged from February to July 2007," most of the period during of the troop surge.

The GAO also reported that discrepancies were found between its own independent investigations and the report submitted to Congress by the White House last July. Without accusing the administration of misleading Congress and the public, the GAO report concluded that the administration's future reports on benchmarks in Iraq should be clearer and should provide additional data to support its conclusions.

The benchmark concept originated with the White House. According to a Washington Post story from March 2007, the Bush administration, alarmed at growing dissent among Republicans, asked Congress to replace a measure that tied new funding to a timetable for withdrawal with the "benchmarks" concept.

Republicans in both the House and the Senate, including Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) and Rep. Zach Wamp (R-TN), helped shepherd benchmark language into compromise legislation that provided supplemental funding for the war and deleted mandatory timetables. Without the benchmark language, many Republican members of Congress would have been strongly tempted to vote for a bill that contained withdrawal language.

Prior to spring of 2007, the benchmarks concept had also been worked out by the Bush administration and the Iraqi government in the summer of 2006 in order to stave off growing demands for troop withdrawal timelines in the run-up to the 2006 mid-term congressional elections.

That collaboration between Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Maliki on benchmarks caused the president to express great support for his Iraqi protege. "He's learning to be a leader," Bush said condescendingly in early 2007. But then Bush leveled this threat: "[I]f I come to the conclusion that he can't be the leader - he's unwilling to lead or he's deceptive - then we'll change course. But I haven't come to that conclusion."

Determined to stay the course, Bush reiterated support for Al-Maliki in August 2007.

The specific benchmarks examined by the GAO were adopted by Congress in May 2007 and passed with large bipartisan majorities in both Houses. The president signed the benchmarks measure into law on May 25, 2007 (Public Law 110-28). That bill also ordered the non-partisan GAO to conduct the investigation that would determine whether the benchmarks had been met.

Now the Bush administration and congressional Republicans are acting as though they had no role in creating the benchmark language.

According to media accounts, White House spokesperson Tony Fratto dismissed the GAO report and downplayed its findings.

Fratto implied that the White House's own report, due next week, will have a more pleasant picture of the situation in Iraq. The White House also touted "success" in Al-Anbar Province, though most observers see recent developments there as unrelated to the "surge."

The Washington Post reported in late August that developments in Al-Anbar arose as a result of US military disengagement in the province combined by with offers to arm Sunni groups who fear Shia dominance in Iraq.

According to the Post, a Pentagon paper called the "Iraq Tribal Study," which provided the rationale for the new tactics, described the new situation as only temporary. While both sides in this uneasy alliance favor stopping Al-Qaeda, occupation forces should not assume these temporary allies support their ultimate goals. The Sunni groups involved, the Pentagon report said, would play "both ends of the insurgency, coalition versus the insurgents, against the middle while maintaining a single motive, to force the coalition to leave Iraq."

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH), who voted for the president's benchmark language in May , is also now criticizing the GAO report. Earlier this week, he was quoted by the New York Times as saying, the GAO report is "an unfair way to judge our troops' progress." And, "[t]he report was designed to guarantee an unsatisfactory result."

Democrats pressed forward with a more realistic assessment. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) declared the president's "surge" a failure. In a floor speech on Tuesday, Schumer said, "The surge, by the president's own stated goal, is failing. The [Iraqi] government is weaker. The fundamentals on the ground are the same."

In a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), who chairs the committee, described the GAO as having "earned a reputation for objective, factual analysis," something, he said, that has been missing for too long in the debate over the Iraq war.

Referring to rosier estimates produced by the White House that have "varnished over its own goals," Kerry hoped that the US government "can establish here some kind of benchmark ourselves as to what it is we ought to be measuring."

Kerry further charged that each time the White House comes out with a new report about the situation in Iraq, "we hear a shift in the analysis." He added: "The fact is that mistake after mistake has been met with not a changed policy, but a changed rationale."

Kerry could have easily cited as evidence for the the White House's shifting stance President Bush's October 27, 2003 claim that, after months of keeping details about escalating attacks in Iraq secret, that the increase in violence was a positive sign of "progress" because the insurgents were "desperate."

After it had become clear by the end of 2003 that the president's claim that Iraq possessed "stockpiles" of WMD and thus posed an immediate danger that warranted preemptive war had been wrong, Bush shifted to claiming that Iraq posed such a threat because it wanted to re-open WMD programs. None were found, and even that argument was soon dropped.

Kerry could also have pointed to Bush's October 2005 reinvention of the rationale for the war: Iraq was a "central front in the war on terror."

Today it is the Garden of Eden.

Attempting to sound a note of compromise, Armed Services Committee ranking minority member Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), who earlier in the summer signaled a break with President Bush's Iraq war policy, urged a compromise Tuesday and rejected "partisan oversimplification" and "the binary choice between surge and withdrawal."

But Lugar, who also voted for the benchmarks in May, appeared to echo White House talking points by saying benchmarks are irrelevant. Lugar added the enigmatic statement: "The surge must not be an excuse for failing to prepare for the next phase of our involvement in Iraq, whether that is withdrawal, a gradual redeployment or some other option."

Is Sen. Lugar trying to have it both ways: distance from Bush's failed presidency, while doing its misleading public relations work? Can Lugar forge political space between the White House and the vast antiwar majority of the American public large enough for other congressional Republicans who are desperate to break with Bush? Can any of those Republicans who have signaled a need to change course in Iraq appear to be anything but two-faced if they fail to vote with the majority of Congress and link a timetable for withdrawal to new funding? I don't think so.

Joel Wendland is managing editor of Political Affairs.

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