Friday, July 13, 2007

Grading on a curve in Iraq

Yet again, President Bush demonstrated yesterday why he is the most potent weapon in the Democrats’ 2008 campaign arsenal.

Witness his latest truth-challenged attempt to show that “progress” is being achieved in Iraq. His summer report card, mandated by Congress, is vivid proof that grade inflation is not just an issue confined to academia. Bush, who has joked in the past about being a C student at Yale, clearly believes that his ruinous war should be judged far more leniently. As he sees it, a score of 44 percent should not be considered an F; rather, it should be viewed as “a cause for optimism.”

He’s like one of those Little League dads who thinks that every kid deserves a trophy just for showing up. His stock has fallen so low that even the newspaper in Wichita, Kansas - which endorsed him in 2004 - is now telling its red-state readers that Bush should "face reality" and recognize that "America cannot prosecute an open-ended war without achievable goals and without the support of the American people."

Bush believes that a 44 percent score is proof that goals are being achieved. In his report card, he Decided yesterday that progress is being made on eight of the 18 congressionally established benchmarks; thus, they were marked as “satisfactory.” Another eight were marked as “unsatisfactory,” and two others were marked as neither. Hence, 44 percent. But even that score is deceptively high, because most of the eight “satisfactory” achievements are relatively minor – while virtually all the failures are major.

For instance, the Bush team considered it a “satisfactory” benchmark that the various political factions in Iraq continue to have a Constitutional Review Committee, which is tasked to figure out how much power should be exercised in Baghdad, and how much power should be exercised in the regions. That’s pretty fundamental stuff, and even though this committee has been around since last November, nothing has been resolved; indeed, the committee has received an extension so that it can continue its “review.”

So even though this committee has done nothing substantive, clearly because – as the Bush report card concedes – the “political blocs still need to reach an accommodation on these difficult political issues,” the Bush team awarded this benchmark a “satisfactory” grade.

In other words, under Bush’s generous criteria, you can get a passing grade not for actually doing something, but merely for continuing to talk about maybe doing something.

The whole point of Bush’s troop “surge” is to provide a safer security environment, so that the Iraqi factions can pursue national political reconciliation. But there is no sign, in Bush’s report card, that the factions are any closer to that goal than they were prior to the “surge.” Nowhere in the report card does Bush mention, for example, that more than 25 percent of the Iraqi Parliament’s 275 members are reportedly boycotting the proceedings on a regular basis (thus often making it impossible for the body to conduct business), and that at least 12 of the 38 cabinet ministers reportedly are not attending Cabinet meetings any longer.

Which brings us to all the benchmarks that even the Bush team had to mark as “unsatisfactory.” These are all the big-ticket items: No progress on setting up provincial elections; no progress on establishing a a serious program to disarm the sectarian militias, no progress on permitting Iraqi army and security police to crack down on militias without interference from sectarian factions; no progress on the key legislation to fairly distribute oil revenue to all sects and ethnicities; no progress on ratcheting up the number of Iraqi military and security forces that can protect citizens without U.S. help (on the contrary, the Pentagon yesterday said there has been a “slight reduction” in those all-important numbers).

Nor did Bush happen to mention, in his press conference yesterday, that the government’s National Intelligence Council signaled this week that the political situation in Iraq is actually far worse than Bush’s report card suggests. In House testimony the other day, deputy director for analysis Thomas Fingar said there have been “few appreciable gains,” primarily because the sectarian strife is so intractable: “(C)ommunal violence and scant common ground between Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds continues to polarize politics.”

There is no rational reason to believe that anything is going to change in the next eight weeks, at which point Gen. David Petraeus is supposed to tell us whether the “surge” is working. David Shorr, a foreign policy specialist who posts at Democracy Arsenal (a website sponsored largely by Democrats with strong national security credentials), argued the other day: “The reason Iraqi political leaders haven't achieved the benchmarks is that they don't really want to…(It) doesn't make sense to wait for something that isn't going to happen.”

But Bush doesn’t entertain opinions that are expressed outside his bubble. Not even poll numbers rivaling Richard Nixon at the nadir of Watergate will have any appreciable impact on his thinking – as indicated by his remark yesterday, “I don’t think Congress ought to be running the war.” The ’06 elections actually demonstrated that the public does want Congress to run the war – in a new direction. But Bush will cede nothing unless Congress confronts him with a veto-proof majority. That will require the assistance of Republicans, few of whom, even now, have shown any willingness to act.

In the absence of countervailing power, Bush will work every possible loophole to buy more time; that’s precisely what his grade inflation was designed to do. And with each passing day, procrastinating Republicans will have to face the fact that their president is leading them to ruin in 2008.