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Monday, August 20, 2007

Benchmarks? What Benchmarks?

In his 2007 State of the Union, President Bush said, "The people of Iraq want to live in peace, and now it's time for their government to act. Iraq's leaders know that our commitment is not open-ended."

Maybe the president defines 'open-ended' differently from the rest of us, because it's clear to everyone on the planet that absolutely nothing could happen that would cause him to pull out of Iraq. In that same speech, in the same paragraph, Bush said, "Iraq's leaders have committed themselves to a series of benchmarks -- to achieve reconciliation, to share oil revenues among all of Iraq's citizens, to put the wealth of Iraq into the rebuilding of Iraq, to allow more Iraqis to re-enter their nation's civic life, to hold local elections, and to take responsibility for security in every Iraqi province." That Bush was talking about benchmarks was supposed to be a big deal. If the iraqi government didn't meet these benchmarks, we'd be gone.

Like so much that Bush says, this was BS. Benchmarks were super-important in January, but now we shouldn't worry about them. In his weekend radio address, the president announced that benchmarks don't mean crap.

Agence France-Presse:

Bush acknowledged that "political progress at the national level had not matched the pace of progress at the local level," and benchmarks adopted by the US government as a standard for assessing progress in Iraq had largely remained unmet.

But he insisted that "in a democracy, over time national politics reflects local realities" and "as reconciliation occurs in local communities across Iraq, it will help create the conditions for reconciliation in Baghdad as well."

The 18 benchmarks, adopted earlier this year, call, however, for sustainable progress in national reconciliation and mending the country's broken economy as a condition for continued US support.

The word 'progress' came up five times in Bush's address, 'benchmarks' came up once. We're always making progress, but we never seem to actually get anywhere.

A big part of the problem is that the iraqi government is basically a pretense -- it exists, but no one gives a damn about it or what it does. Iraq is governed not by an elected government, but by sectarian sympathies. An op-ed in the New York Times, written by seven soldiers, illustrates reality in Iraq.

The claim that we are increasingly in control of the battlefields in Iraq is an assessment arrived at through a flawed, American-centered framework. Yes, we are militarily superior, but our successes are offset by failures elsewhere. What soldiers call the "battle space" remains the same, with changes only at the margins. It is crowded with actors who do not fit neatly into boxes: Sunni extremists, Al Qaeda terrorists, Shiite militiamen, criminals and armed tribes. This situation is made more complex by the questionable loyalties and Janus-faced role of the Iraqi police and Iraqi Army, which have been trained and armed at United States taxpayers' expense.

A few nights ago, for example, we witnessed the death of one American soldier and the critical wounding of two others when a lethal armor-piercing explosive was detonated between an Iraqi Army checkpoint and a police one. Local Iraqis readily testified to American investigators that Iraqi police and Army officers escorted the triggermen and helped plant the bomb. These civilians highlighted their own predicament: had they informed the Americans of the bomb before the incident, the Iraqi Army, the police or the local Shiite militia would have killed their families.

As many grunts will tell you, this is a near-routine event. Reports that a majority of Iraqi Army commanders are now reliable partners can be considered only misleading rhetoric. The truth is that battalion commanders, even if well meaning, have little to no influence over the thousands of obstinate men under them, in an incoherent chain of command, who are really loyal only to their militias.

The iraqi government is meaningless. Even if it had met all of its legislative benchmarks, how much meaning would that have in a state this lawless? You can pass all the laws you want, but without anyone to enforce them, legality becomes a theoretical concept.

All of Bush's ideas about Iraq seem to exist only in some fantasyland. It's like he can't distinguish between what Iraq is and what he would like Iraq to be. We're supposed to look at little examples of progress -- a new school here, a new mayor there -- and ignore the big, flaming picture. Bush, completely unable to find any national example of progress, shows us only trivial examples of all this progress we're supposed to be making. In the town of Muthanna, for example, "the local council held a public meeting to hear from citizens on how to spend their budget and rebuild their neighborhoods."

Wow, how underwhelming. We've gone through years of war and hundreds of thousands of deaths so that a small town can have a city council meeting. It gives you an idea of just how bad things are that this makes the list of examples of 'progress.'

Another example is that "an increasing number of young men volunteering for the Iraqi army and police." As the op-ed from NYT shows, that's not necessarily a good thing.

In the end, it's clear that absolutely nothing will ever cause Bush to pull out of Iraq. Despite his posturing, his commitment is open-ended. The iraqi government can do whatever the hell it wants, the police and the army can be as counterproductive as is humanly possible, and Bush will stand by his damned war.

It wouldn't be so bad if Bush were merely stupid or stubborn alone. But he's stupid and stubborn -- a deadly combination. If it were up to him, not only would we never leave Iraq, but we'd get them a star on the flag, a state motto, and an NFL team. Nothing, absolutely nothing, will get him to back down.

We have to stop pretending that Bush is rational, that he has some legitimate argument for continuing the war -- he isn't and he doesn't. Someone has to take this damned war away from him.


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