Bush report sharpens Iraq debate
The White House says progress on eight of 18 'benchmarks' is a reason for optimism.
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.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.
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."