Who Sets Iraq's Benchmarks?

The real war after the war in Iraq isn't just the daily violence in that country - it's a political one to shape public perceptions of what ultimately will be considered success or failure for the United States and a new Iraqi government.

In Congress, at the United Nations, on the presidential campaign trail, in the media, and by e-mail - Iraq has become a virtual elephant for thousands of blind men to touch and then declare unequivocally what's going right, what's going wrong, and what should be done about it.

The reason for this contest to set the one true benchmark is simple: Many people are stuck in prewar positions and want to justify them, while the reality in Iraq is so complicated, uncertain, and vast that it's easier to select only a few certainties - such as bombings - to pass judgment.

President Bush believes he's losing this perception war, blaming the media for focusing on "negative" news, and has launched a PR campaign to play up successes in Iraq. Many of the media, stung by the criticism, are showcasing more US successes.

At the UN, meanwhile, Secretary-General Kofi Annan has tried to shape the perception of the Security Council about what's going on in Iraq, declaring, for instance, that the US-installed Iraqi Governing Council cannot successfully write a constitution and hold elections and that only the UN can be midwife to a new government.

In Congress, many budget- conscious Democrats and Republicans want to shape the perception that Iraq isn't really in need of much US aid because it has potential oil wealth.

Pollsters compete to ask the right questions they think will truly show American attitudes toward Iraq. Pundits on TV and on opinion pages play perception volleyball about events and trends most of them have never seen. And the Democratic presidential candidates try to paint a scenario of failure in Iraq that only they can redeem.

Six months after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the US and Iraqis still are trying to fill a void in that country. As major decisions must be made in the US and elsewhere, a healthy debate requires more facts and less fantasy.

Bush, the media, and many others have so far not created a convincing measure for progress in an emerging new Iraq. They should all dig deeper into Iraq's reality and not their preconceived notions.

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