Bush report sharpens Iraq debate

The White House says progress on eight of 18 'benchmarks' is a reason for optimism.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Progress on the military front, not so much in the political arena: That is the shorthand of President Bush's assessment of the impact of the "surge" of US troops in Iraq that he sent to Congress Thursday.

How far the interim report on Mr. Bush's Iraq strategy will go in cooling rising demands in Congress for a change of course – one that begins to pull US forces back from the fighting in Iraq – will be gauged over the coming week as Congress debates defense-spending legislation.

Some Republican lawmakers jumped quickly to mold perception of the report, trumpeting it as more positive than many observers had anticipated. But an assessment that basically calls for more patience on Iraq may end up having a limited impact – in part because it emphasizes military achievements at a point in the Iraq effort when everyone from military commanders to analysts agree that political progress is now the crucial determining factor.

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In unveiling the report, Bush said at a press conference Thursday that the military progress is laying the groundwork for the necessary political advances. "Progress on security will pave the way for political progress," he said, acknowledging that his report paints a brighter picture on the military front. Adding that security is the prerequisite for political progress, the president added, "It is not surprising that political progress is lagging behind" military achievements.

He also acknowledged the US public's dim view of the US presence in Iraq, but called for Americans to reconsider "the consequences for America if we fail in Iraq." He repeated his long-held view that a failure to confront Al Qaeda and related groups in Iraq would risk for emboldening extremists to extend their actions to American soil.

Tally of the benchmarks

The White House assessment, which evaluates a list of 18 benchmarks that Congress set when it signed on to the strategy to add about 30,000 more US troops in Iraq, is mixed. It finds "satisfactory" progress in eight benchmarks, "not satisfactory" progress in eight others, and a mixed assessment of two.

The report also cites positive development in areas not originally included as benchmarks. It notes, and Bush emphasized, the growing number of Sunni tribes in Iraq's Anbar Province that have turned against Al Qaeda-affiliated groups and claim to be ready to join the United States in fighting Islamic extremists.

The interim report now increases pressure on the administration to report political progress when it next delivers an assessment. In September, Gen. David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, is expected to report to Congress on the strategy, along with Ryan Crocker, US ambassador to Iraq.

Some Republican lawmakers stressed the interim nature of Thursday's report – and called for patience over congressional action at this point. "I don't think anybody on either side of the aisle is particularly happy with the Iraqi government, but we need to wait until September to see where we are going," said Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Yet Senate Democrats say the report confirms the need to act now. "The war in Iraq is headed in a dangerous direction. The Iraqi government has not met a single political benchmark in its entirety – and these are benchmarks they set themselves," said Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada. "It is well past time for a change in course in Iraq. The time to do this is now, not September."

Some analysts say a current overemphasis on the military role suggests the administration does not yet acknowledge the determining nature of Iraq's political state of affairs.

"There is still a tendency in the administration to see this as a military battle with a military outcome," said James Miller, a military expert at the Center for a New American Security, at a Washington forum evaluating the strategy this week. Regional and international diplomatic initiatives to address the Iraq conflict "are still way below what they need to be."

Bush announced he is sending Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the Middle East in early August. On one level, that step will allow the administration in September to claim that diplomacy has not been shortchanged.

Indeed, the initiative will allow the White House to point to other than a military effort, given that little political progress in Iraq is anticipated in the weeks before the September assessment. The Iraqi government continues to be hobbled by boycotts by key ministers, in particular the Sunni bloc. The Iraqi parliament, which has yet to receive some key legislation from the government, including a crucial bill for oil revenue-sharing among sectarian communities, is set to take a month-long recess in August.

Executive-branch powers

Even as he issued a report demanded by Congress, Bush made clear that he does not look favorably on congressional efforts to encroach on policy territory he sees as the domain of the executive branch. "I don't think Congress ought to be running the war," he said. "I think they ought to be funding the troops."

That perspective on preserving executive prerogative is all the more poignant given that the report the White House issued Thursday was demanded by Republican Sen. John Warner of Virginia. Senator Warner had said in May that waiting for a September assessment was "too long," thus reflecting growing impatience with the war.

And even though the White House insists the interim report's "mixed" evaluation reflects a desire by the executive branch to be honest with Congress and get beyond political spin, some military experts say the report still fudges reality on the ground in Iraq.

In an analysis of the White House report card on the Iraq benchmarks, national security expert Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says "the facts on the ground" demonstrate "that the Iraqi government has not really met the Bush administration's benchmarks in any major area."

Even on the military yardsticks the administration is emphasizing, progress is not necessarily what the administration is claiming, Mr. Cordesman says. The White House said the Iraqis had delivered a "satisfactory" response to the demand that it provide three trained battalions to support the security "surge" effort in Baghdad, for example. In his evaluation, however, Cordesman says that while delivery of the Iraqi forces was "more or less" on schedule, ongoing staffing levels were as low as 50 percent.

Iraqi security forces are allowed long periods for returning to families, and in some cases, their deployments to front combat lines are as short as three months. That is particularly galling to US troops who have seen their deployments extended from 12 to 15 months.

On the benchmark calling for Iraqi forces to provide "even-handed enforcement of the law," Cordesman rates compliance "a failure in Baghdad and nationally."

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