One of the charms of sports is that they keep score. For example, if like me you're a fan of Michigan Wolverines football, no amount of rationalization can hide the dismal fact that, this season, we've been sentenced to root for a terrible team.
By contrast, in the world of politics, it's possible to go on a 4 1/2-year losing streak and still claim that things are actually going well.
That's what's happening this week in Washington, as the White House pulls out all the stops to try to convince people "the surge" is working, that there's light at the end of the tunnel, and that therefore Congress should give the Bush administration yet more time to get the occupation of Iraq turned around.
In the game of politics, you can get away with this kind of thing for several reasons.
First, you can mess around with statistics and claim that, while most observers think you've only kicked a couple of field goals, you've really scored several touchdowns.
This is what the Pentagon is doing with statistics on civilian violence in Iraq. While sources such as The Associated Press and The Washington Post have concluded that - by their calculations - there's been no decline in violence in Iraq as a whole, the Pentagon says it has classified information that what it defines as sectarian violence is down by as much as 75 percent. (As a Michigan fan, I wish our coaches could conjure up a few "secret" touchdowns that no one remembers happening, but which mysteriously appear on the scoreboard just before time runs out).
Moreover, you can change the rules in the middle of the game.
The original point of the surge was to create enough stability to allow the Iraqi government, such as it is, to start unifying the country. That's why Congress has forced the Bush administration to keep score, by specifying various benchmarks that were supposed to be achieved.
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So what happened? The Government Accountability Office, which Congress appointed to referee the game, has just reported that almost none of the benchmarks have been met. The Bush administration has reacted by declaring that the grading process is unfair, because partial credit isn't being given for making progress toward achieving them.
This is the equivalent of a football coach complaining that his offense should be credited with scoring a couple of points for having moved a bit down the field, even though it ended up fumbling the ball away.
Beyond this, the politics of the Iraq war dictate that if cooking the statistics doesn't do the trick, and altering the rules of the game still doesn't put you ahead, you can simply declare that you were never playing football in the first place.
This has already happened several times. At first, the game was called Disarm the Crazy Dictator. When it turned out Saddam Hussein didn't have WMD after all, the game suddenly became Create a Glorious Mideast Democracy.
Then, when we found ourselves down 42-0 at the half in that contest, it was announced we were now playing We Can't Leave Because There Will Be Chaos, aka The Pottery Barn Olympics.
Figuring out the score in this latest game is quite complicated, but a hint of how hard it is to play is provided by one of Gen. David Petraeus' advisers, Stephen Biddle, a military analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations. According to Biddle, winning We Can't Leave Because There Will Be Chaos will require deploying 100,000 American troops in Iraq for the next 20 years, and even then the odds of winning will be what he calls "a long-shot gamble."
Does this sound like a game worth playing? Before trying to answer that, we ought to fire all the current coaching staff.
Paul Campos is a professor of law at the University of Colorado. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2007 The Rocky Mountain News