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Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Benchmark Excuse

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.