Remember those Iraqi benchmarks?

You know, the 18 benchmarks Democrats used to consistently hound Bush about? You don’t hear about them so much anymore. Commentary Magazine’s assistant online editor Abe Greenwald explains a bit about the benchmarks, and why Democrats aren’t using them as a hammer as much as they used to (h/t: Betsy Newmark):

In mid-May 2007, Congress passed bill H.R. 2206, which included 18 benchmarks intended to gauge success in the security and political reconciliation of Iraq. Some of the benchmarks were broadly worded calls for beefed-up security, while others cited very specific goals. Benchmarks included, for example, “Enacting and implementing legislation addressing amnesty” “Providing three trained and ready Iraqi brigades to support Baghdad operations” and “Ensuring that the rights of minority political parties in the Iraqi legislature are protected.” Continued aid for Iraq reconstruction was to be contingent upon the Iraqi government’s ability to satisfactorily meet these benchmarks. President George W. Bush signed the bill into law on May 25, 2007.


Petraeus defanged anti-war Democrats by calling for a troop drawdown starting mid-2008. Because Petraeus had realized that benchmarks weren’t the most useful metric and because he recognized a trickier kind of progress underway in Iraq, he had no need to fudge things. Moreover, he’s an honorable and gifted military mind who understood that the surge, as implemented, would either continue to yield progress or it would not.

If the Dems could no longer bite, they could certainly still bark. In the wake of the September testimony, anti-war lawmakers and media outlets refused to let up on the benchmark mantra. For them, victory or defeat in Iraq hung on those 18 points. Party big shots like Harry Reid and Joe Biden publicly cited the failure to meet the benchmarks as evidence that Iraq was hopeless. House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn issued a statement saying: “Despite the clear evidence that the Iraqi government has failed to make the necessary political progress and deliver on 15 of 18 benchmarks outlined by the Bush administration, the president wants to establish a permanent presence or ‘enduring relationship’ in Iraq, continuing to sacrifice an unacceptable level of American blood and treasure.”

Well, if the benchmarks were all-important to Democrats in the fall of 2007, they have become meaningless to them in 2008. When is the last time you’ve heard a benchmark reckoning from Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi? The reason for the deafening silence on this matter is simple. The military and political progress in Iraq has proved so monumental that the majority of the benchmarks have now been met.

Seven of the 18 benchmarks relate to Iraq’s national security. We can just about put a check next to each one. We can even look at some of those and marvel at the low expectations behind them. Number 9, for example: “Providing three trained and ready Iraqi brigades to support Baghdad operations.” There are far more than three battle-ready brigades in Baghdad. The galvanization of Sunni Awakening groups who have wrested their country back from al-Qaeda and the decisive efforts of Iraqi forces in Basra and Sadr City have been the two most vital developments of the entire post-Saddam period.

The other eleven benchmarks are the political ones. And these are not so easily sniffed at. However, with Iraq’s parliament passing three critical laws in February and the Maliki government’s surprising tenacity, the four most challenging of these benchmarks have been met: a plan for provincial governance, de-Baathification reform, an amnesty for former insurgents, and legislation on the procedures to form semiautonomous regions.

Of the remaining benchmarks, some were always too ill-defined to be worthwhile. (Consider 18, for example: “Ensuring that Iraq’s political authorities are not undermining or making false accusations against members of the Iraqi Security Forces.” Can we even say with confidence that America’s political authorities are not making false accusations against our own armed forces?) Others are also subjective, but admittedly important — equality under the law being one. And on these there is continued and demonstrable progress.

The whole thing is well-worth the read.

I suspect that the reason Democrats aren’t screaming daily about benchmarks in Iraq anymore is the same reason they continue to downplay the success of the surge: they don’t want to admit they were wrong about the surge’s ability to produce fruitful, meaningful results. Not only that, but they have a strengthened, emboldened anti-war base that they know they have to appease.

This is why Barack Obama’s promised trip to Iraq before the November elections will be interesting to watch because, as I noted before, he will be walking a tightrope between not wanting to be viewed by the base as too optimistic about the progress in Iraq, yet won’t want to be viewed by Independent and undecided voters who aren’t necessarily anti-Iraq war as not giving due credit to our fighting men and women in uniform who have worked hard and sacrificed so much to help bring Iraq to where it is today. Not only that, but he’s staked his whole presidential campaign on his “judgment” to oppose the Iraq war and has consistently talked it down over the last two years. So there’s no way he can credibly say at this point, “Hey, the progress being made in Iraq is real and significant but at this point it’s too fragile to consider a quick withdrawal as I’d initially proposed.” Then again, who knows what the hell his current position is on withdrawing from Iraq, considering a former foreign policy advisor for Obama (Samantha Power) once said in a BBC interview earlier this year that on Iraq, “[Obama] will, of course, not rely on some plan that he’s crafted as a presidential candidate or a U.S. Senator.”

This is the corner he’s painted himself into for the general election, and McCain needs to continue to keep the focus on how much things have improved in Iraq and how Obama opposed the surge from the start, and emphasize how we wouldn’t have seen any of the gains we see today in Iraq if freshman Senator Barry O., who has to date only visited the country one time – in January 2006, had had his say about it last year. Regardless of what the general public’s opinion is on whether or not we should have invaded Iraq in the first place, deep down most Americans support our military and don’t want them to be viewed as failures. The more McCain stresses their accomplishments on and off the battlefield in Iraq, the weaker Obama will look. I suspect this is the main reason Obama would like for the economy to be the main focus of the general election, because he knows the heated, pointed anti-war rhetoric he used to win the Democrat presidential nomination won’t fly over so well amongst many general election voters.

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