A year ago, when neither the war nor political reconciliation was A
going well, the Bush administration reluctantly agreed to 18 benchmarks for
judging progress in Iraq.
And the Democratic Congress eagerly wrote the benchmarks into law, also
requiring the administration to report back in July and September on whether
the benchmarks were being met.
Despite the surge of additional American troops and a new counterinsurgency
strategy, the reports found little progress on the political benchmarks
requiring tangible steps toward reconciliation between Shia and Sunnis.
Democrats insisted this meant the surge had failed.
They had a point, but not anymore. The surge, by quelling violence and
providing security, was supposed to produce "breathing space" in
which reconciliation could take place. Now it has, not because President Bush
says so, but based on those same benchmarks that Democrats once claimed were
measures of failure in Iraq.
Last week, the Iraqi parliament passed three laws that amounted to a
political surge to achieve reconciliation. Taken together, the laws are likely
to bring minority Sunnis fully into the political process they had earlier
boycotted and to produce a new class of political leaders.
Just as important is what the laws reflect in Iraq today. "The whole
motivating factor" behind the legislation was "reconciliation, not
retribution," says American ambassador Ryan Crocker, who has never sugarcoated
the impediments to progress in Iraq.
This is "remarkably different" from six months ago, he said.
The Iraqi government had made progress on nine of the 18 benchmarks before
last week. But these were the easier ones, like forming a constitutional review
committee or establishing security stations in Baghdad with American and Iraqi soldiers. The
new laws deal with the harder, more divisive issues.
The most controversial--and the toughest to enact--gives significant power
to provincial councils and mandates new provincial elections by October 1. As a
result, leaders of the so-called Sunni Awakening who have broken with al Qaeda
and insurgents are all but certain to gain power. And Iraq will have
a decentralized, federal system of government.
In assessing progress last fall, the administration conceded the Iraqis had
"not made significant progress" on achieving the benchmark on
provincial powers. Now they have.
Next in importance to reconciliation is an amnesty law under which thousands
of jailed Sunnis who haven't been charged with a crime will be released. Months
ago, the administration said "the prerequisites for a successful general
amnesty are not present." But the surge changed that by reducing violence
and creating the conditions for amnesty.
If they wish, Democrats can cite the failure of the Iraqi parliament to pass
a "hydrocarbons" law to codify the sharing of oil revenues among the
Shia, Sunnis, and Kurds. And that law is still needed, particularly to provide
a framework for managing the oil sector of the Iraqi economy.
In effect, however, the Iraqis are now sharing oil revenues through the $48
billion budget they passed. Ten billion dollars is to be distributed to the
provinces without any sectarian bias. By the way, the vast majority of the $48
billion came from oil production.
A few weeks ago, the Iraqi government dealt with still another benchmark
involving reconciliation. It called for "enacting and implementing a
de-Baathification reform" to allow thousands of bureaucrats and officials
in Saddam Hussein's regime to regain their jobs. Last fall, the Iraqis had
"not made satisfactory progress" on this reform.
The new law has been criticized as too complicated. It may
be as likely to force former Baathists--Sunnis mostly--out of jobs as it is to
provide them with job opportunities. Crocker said the law will have to be
straightened out by the executive council of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, the
president (a Kurd), and two vice presidents (Shia and Sunni). "They're
approaching it from a spirit of reconciliation," he said. We'll see.
When the second benchmarks report was released last September, Democrats
jumped on it. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said the report "shows
the president's flawed escalation policy is not working." According to
Democratic senator Joe Biden of Delaware,
"all it does is point out the failure." Democratic senator Jack Reed
of Rhode Island
said the Iraqi government "is not making progress ... with respect to
Now, the facts on the ground have changed dramatically, and so has progress
on the benchmarks. Will Democrats acknowledge this? Or will they continue to
claim the surge has failed and demand rapid withdrawal of our troops? So far,
Democrats have reacted with silence.
"Facts are stubborn," Hillary Clinton said last month, "and I
know it's sometimes hard to keep track of facts. But facts matter." Indeed
they do. But with Democrats, the warning of former Harvard dean Henry Rosovsky
may apply. "Never underestimate the difficulty," he said, "of
changing false beliefs by facts."