The ‘Benchmark’ Excuse
Crocker and Petraeus speak some truths, if Senators are listening.
Thursday, July 12, 2007 12:01 a.m. EDT
Ryan Crocker, the U.S. Ambassador in Iraq, is a 36-year career diplomat who has served under seven administrations in Iran, Syria, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Pakistan. He’s no partisan gunslinger. So it’s worth listening to his views as Congressional Democrats and a growing number of Republicans press for a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq on the excuse that the Iraqi government hasn’t met a set of political “benchmarks.”
“The longer I’m here, the more I’m persuaded that Iraq cannot be analyzed by these kinds of discrete benchmarks,” Mr. Crocker told the New York Times’s John Burns in an interview on Saturday, referring to pending Iraqi legislation on an oil-sharing agreement and a relaxation of de-Baathification laws. “You could not achieve any of them, and still have a situation where arguably the country is moving in the right direction. And conversely, I think you could achieve them all and still not be heading towards stability, security and overall success in Iraq.”
Mr. Crocker’s comments are a useful reminder of the irrelevance–and disingenuousness–of much Washington commentary on Iraq. For proponents of early withdrawal, the “benchmarking” issue has provided a handy excuse to make the Iraqi government rather than al Qaeda the main culprit in the violence engulfing their country. A forthcoming Administration report indicating lagging political progress is certain to be seized on by Congress as it takes up a defense spending bill and debates an amendment ordering troop withdrawals by the fall. A proposal to mandate extended times between deployments (and thus force withdrawal) failed narrowly in the Senate yesterday, though not before winning the support of seven Republicans.
Nobody claims the Iraqi government is a model of democratic perfection, or that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is the second coming of Lincoln. We advised the White House not to lobby against his predecessor. But Mr. Maliki’s government is democratic and more inclusive than most reporting suggests, and it is fighting for its life against an enemy that uses car bombs and suicide bombers as its policy instruments. In an interview this week in the New York Post, General David Petraeus noted that while the performance of the Iraqi Army has been mixed, “their losses in June were three times ours.” To suggest that Iraqis aren’t willing to fight for their freedom is an insult to their families.
General Petraeus also noted that “the level of sectarian deaths in Baghdad in June was the lowest in about a year,” evidence that in this key battlefield the surge is making progress. As a result, al Qaeda is being forced to pick its targets in more remote areas, as it did last week in the village of Amirli near Kirkuk, where more than 100 civilians were murdered. More U.S. troops and the revolt of Sunni tribal leaders against al Qaeda are the most hopeful indicators in many months that the insurgency can be defeated.
But that isn’t going to happen under the timetable now contemplated by Congress. “I can think of few commanders in history who wouldn’t have wanted more troops, more time or more unity among their partners,” General Petraeus told the Post. “However, if I could only have one at this point in Iraq, it would be more time.”
It’s also not going to happen if Congress insists on using troop withdrawals to punish Iraqis for their supposed political delinquency. The central issue is whether the Iraqis can make those decisions without having to fear assassination as the consequence of political compromise. The more insistent Congress becomes about troop withdrawals, the more unlikely political reconciliation in Iraq becomes.
That said, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the issue of reconciliation has become a smokescreen for American politicians who care for their own political fortunes far more than they do about the future of Iraq or the consequences of Iraq’s collapse for U.S. interests in the Middle East. Here again, they could stand to listen to Mr. Crocker.
“You can’t build a whole policy on a fear of a negative, but, boy, you’ve really got to account for it,” he said. “In the States, it’s like we’re in the last half of the third reel of a three-reel movie, and all we have to do is decide we’re done here . . . and we leave the theater and go on to something else. Whereas out here, you’re just getting into the first reel of five reels, and ugly as the first reel has been, the other four and a half are going to be way, way worse.”
Mr. Crocker is referring, of course, to the possibility of far nastier violence if the U.S. departs before Iraqi security forces can maintain order. Some will denounce this as a parade of horribles designed to intimidate Congress, but we also recall some of the same people who predicted that a Communist triumph in Southeast Asia would yield only peace, not the “boat people” and genocide. Those Americans demanding a U.S. retreat in Iraq will be directly responsible for whatever happens next.
THE PRESIDENT: Good morning. Thank you. Yesterday, America lost an extraordinary First Lady and a fine Texan, Lady Bird Johnson. She brought grace to the White House and beauty to our country. On behalf of the American people, Laura and I send our condolences to her daughters, Lynda and Luci, and we offer our prayers to the Johnson family.
Before I answer some of your questions, today I’d like to provide the American people with an update on the situation in Iraq. Since America began military operations in Iraq, the conflict there has gone through four major phases. The first phase was the liberation of Iraq from Saddam Hussein. The second phase was the return of sovereignty to the Iraqi people and the holding of free elections. The third phase was the tragic escalation of sectarian violence sparked by the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra.
We’ve entered a fourth phase: deploying reinforcements and launching new operations to help Iraqis bring security to their people. I’m going to explain why the success of this new strategy is vital for protecting our people and bringing our troops home, which is a goal shared by all Americans. I’ll brief you on the report we are sending to Congress. I’ll discuss why a drawdown of forces that is not linked to the success of our operations would be a disaster.
As President, my most solemn responsibility is to keep the American people safe. So on my orders, good men and women are now fighting the terrorists on the front lines in Iraq. I’ve given our troops in Iraq clear objectives. And as they risk their lives to achieve these objectives, they need to know they have the unwavering support from the Commander-in-Chief, and they do. And they need the enemy to know that America is not going to back down. So when I speak to the American people about Iraq, I often emphasize the importance of maintaining our resolve and meeting our objectives.
As a result, sometimes the debate over Iraq is cast as a disagreement between those who want to keep our troops in Iraq and those who want to bring our troops home. And this is not the real debate. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want to see the day when our brave servicemen and women can start coming home.
In my address to the nation in January, I put it this way: If we increase our support at this crucial moment we can hasten the day our troops begin coming home. The real debate over Iraq is between those who think the fight is lost or not worth the cost, and those that believe the fight can be won and that, as difficult as the fight is, the cost of defeat would be far higher.
I believe we can succeed in Iraq, and I know we must. So we’re working to defeat al Qaeda and other extremists, and aid the rise of an Iraqi government that can protect its people, deliver basic services, and be an ally in the war against these extremists and radicals. By doing this, we’ll create the conditions that would allow our troops to begin coming home, while securing our long-term national interest in Iraq and in the region.
When we start drawing down our forces in Iraq it will be because our military commanders say the conditions on the ground are right, not because pollsters say it will be good politics. The strategy I announced in January is designed to seize the initiative and create those conditions. It’s aimed at helping the Iraqis strengthen their government so that it can function even amid violence. It seeks to open space for Iraq’s political leaders to advance the difficult process of national reconciliation, which is essential to lasting security and stability. It is focused on applying sustained military pressure to rout out terrorist networks in Baghdad and surrounding areas. It is committed to using diplomacy to strengthen regional and international support for Iraq’s democratic government.
Doing all these things is intended to make possible a more limited role in Iraq for the United States. It’s the goal outlined by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group. It’s the goal shared by the Iraqis and our coalition partners. It is the goal that Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus and our troops are working hard to make a reality.
Our top priority is to help the Iraqis protect their population. So we have launched an offensive in and around Baghdad to go after extremists, to buy more time for Iraqi forces to develop, and to help normal life and civil society take root in communities and neighborhoods throughout the country. We’re helping enhance the size, capabilities and effectiveness of the Iraqi security forces so the Iraqis can take over the defense of their own country. We’re helping the Iraqis take back their neighborhoods from the extremists. In Anbar province, Sunni tribes that were once fighting alongside al Qaeda against our coalition are now fighting alongside our coalition against al Qaeda. We’re working to replicate the success in Anbar and other parts of the country.
Two months ago, in the supplemental appropriations bill funding our troops, Congress established 18 benchmarks to gauge the progress of the Iraqi government. They required we submit a full report to Congress by September the 15th. Today my administration has submitted to Congress an interim report that requires us to assess — and I quote the bill — “whether satisfactory progress toward meeting these benchmarks is or is not being achieved.”
Of the 18 benchmarks Congress asked us to measure, we can report that satisfactory progress is being made in eight areas. For example, Iraqis provided the three brigades they promised for operations in and around Baghdad. And the Iraqi government is spending nearly $7.3 billion from its own funds this year to train, equip and modernize its forces. In eight other areas, the Iraqis have much more work to do. For example, they have not done enough to prepare for local elections or pass a law to share oil revenues. And in two remaining areas, progress was too mixed to be characterized one way or the other.
Those who believe that the battle in Iraq is lost will likely point to the unsatisfactory performance on some of the political benchmarks. Those of us who believe the battle in Iraq can and must be won see the satisfactory performance on several of the security benchmarks as a cause for optimism. Our strategy is built on a premise that progress on security will pave the way for political progress. So it’s not surprising that political progress is lagging behind the security gains we are seeing. Economic development funds are critical to helping Iraq make this political progress. Today, I’m exercising the waiver authority granted me by Congress to release a substantial portion of those funds.
The bottom line is that this is a preliminary report and it comes less than a month after the final reinforcements arrived in Iraq. This September, as Congress has required, General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker will return to Washington to provide a more comprehensive assessment. By that time, we hope to see further improvement in the positive areas, the beginning of improvement in the negative areas. We’ll also have a clearer picture of how the new strategy is unfolding, and be in a better position to judge where we need to make any adjustments.
I will rely on General Petraeus to give me his recommendations for the appropriate troop levels in Iraq. I will discuss the recommendation with the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I will continue consultations with members of the United States Congress from both sides of the aisle, and then I’ll make a decision.
I know some in Washington would like us to start leaving Iraq now. To begin withdrawing before our commanders tell us we are ready would be dangerous for Iraq, for the region, and for the United States. It would mean surrendering the future of Iraq to al Qaeda. It would mean that we’d be risking mass killings on a horrific scale. It would mean we’d allow the terrorists to establish a safe haven in Iraq to replace the one they lost in Afghanistan. It would mean increasing the probability that American troops would have to return at some later date to confront an enemy that is even more dangerous.
The fight in Iraq is part of a broader struggle that’s unfolding across the region. The same region in Iran — the same regime in Iran that is pursuing nuclear weapons and threatening to wipe Israel off the map is also providing sophisticated IEDs to extremists in Iraq who are using them to kill American soldiers. The same Hezbollah terrorists who are waging war against the forces of democracy in Lebanon are training extremists to do the same against coalition forces in Iraq. The same Syrian regime that provides support and sanctuary for Islamic jihad and Hamas has refused to close its airport in Damascus to suicide bombers headed to Iraq. All these extremist groups would be emboldened by a precipitous American withdrawal, which would confuse and frighten friends and allies in the region.
Nations throughout the Middle East have a stake in a stable Iraq. To protect our interests and to show our commitment to our friends in the region, we are enhancing our military presence, improving our bilateral security ties, and supporting those fighting the extremists across the Middle East. We’re also using the tools of diplomacy to strengthen regional and international support for Iraq’s democratic government.
So I’m sending Secretary Gates and Secretary Rice to the region in early August. They will meet with our allies, reemphasize our commitment to the International Compact of Sharm el Sheikh, reassure our friends that the Middle East remains a vital strategic priority for the United States.
There is a conversion of visions between what Iraqi leaders want, what our partners want and what our friends in the region want, and the vision articulated by my administration, the Iraq Study Group and others here at home. The Iraqis do not want U.S. troops patrolling their cities forever, any more than the American people do. But we need to ensure that when U.S. forces do pull back that terrorists and extremists cannot take control.
The strategy that General Petraeus and the troops he commands are now carrying out is the best opportunity to bring us to this point. So I ask Congress to provide them with the time and resources they need. The men and women of the United States military have made enormous sacrifices in Iraq. They have achieved great things, and the best way to begin bringing them home is to make sure our new strategy succeeds.