EVEN in the age of instant communication, it takes three months or
more for developments in Iraq to have any impact on the US political
debate. The war is like a distant star whose light we only see well
after the fact.
So Democrats still warn that we'll never be able to police a
sectarian civil war, even after violence has significantly declined in
Iraq - because we have successfully policed a sectarian civil war.
Some critics of the war have seamlessly passed from lamenting
the unstoppability of the Iraqi civil war to warning that the rise of
Sunni security volunteers could be a harbinger of . . . a civil war.
The outdated anti-war sound bite of the moment is that the
surge has failed because the Iraqi government hasn't met 18 benchmarks
set out for it by Congress last year. It is routinely asserted that
only a handful of the benchmarks have been met.
In Newsweek in March, columnist Fareed Zakaria darkly noted
that a few newly passed laws "add up to only three or four of the 18
The benchmarks are much cited, but apparently little read. Of
the 18, seven have to do with supporting the surge and the effort to
establish security in Baghdad: things like providing three brigades to
support operations in the city; establishing joint security stations
with US forces in neighborhoods; and reducing sectarian violence and
eliminating militia control of local security.
By any standard, almost all these security benchmarks have
been met. They were formulated at a time when the Iraqi government's
will to secure Baghdad was in question.
Forget three brigades - as Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute points out, soon enough the Iraqis will have three divisions in and around Baghdad.
The neutralization of militias has been more problematic, but
now Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has declared himself against
the most dangerous Shia militia, Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.
The highest-profile benchmarks are the seven legislative ones. Four
of the key ones have been passed: a law undoing the excesses of
de-Baathification; a provision granting amnesty to former insurgents;
legislation allowing the formation of semiautonomous regions; and
measures setting out provincial powers and a date for provincial
elections. Another important one, a hydrocarbons law, is stalled, but
the passage of a budget sharing oil revenues around the country serves
some of the same function.
The balance of the other benchmarks has to do with the
performance of the Iraqi government and protecting minority rights.
They are harder to evaluate.
Of course, all the grading is somewhat subjective, but
roughly 12 of the 18 benchmarks have been met (and there's been
movement on the others), which makes a much less seductive anti-war
As the reality on the benchmarks slowly sinks in, opponents
of the war will surely move on to something else - probably the war's
Needless to say, if a benchmark has been met, it doesn't necessarily mean the underlying law is wise or will be effective.
The war's critics argue that, in its fine print, the new
de-Baathification law may exclude as many Sunnis from government as the
original, offending law. They're right. Which is why it was always
foolish to try to judge the progress of a nascent, violence-plagued
democracy by a crude checklist.
Already, there has been a shifting of goal posts. Zakaria
warned that some of the new laws passed only "after months of intense
Horrors! What was so remarkable about the Feb. 13 passage of
a package including a budget, provincial-powers law and amnesty
provision wasn't the intensity of the wrangling but the cross-ethnic
and -sectarian logrolling that produced a grand compromise unlocking
the stuck wheels of the Iraqi parliament.
Logrolling, alas, is not one of the benchmarks.
The last time Gen. David Petraeus came to Washington, he
heralded tentative but widely discounted security gains. Now he brings
news of tentative but widely discounted political progress. We'll know
he's had an impact when the benchmarks fade away from anti-war