In the last weeks, the violence in Baghdad has moved from ghastly to merely grim, and we are told that the tide has turned. President Bush says the surge of U.S. troops is producing "encouraging signs." Many of his neoconservative supporters have been less circumspect. "It may well be that General [David] Petraeus is going to lead us to victory in Iraq," declared William Kristol last week. The obstacle now is apparently not in Iraq but in Washington, where Congress has been making efforts to bring American combat forces home. The president's spokesman Tony Snow describes these as recipes for "failure, not victory."
To speak of victory in Iraq might sound like a cruel joke. This is a nation that is now devastated, where 2 million people have fled, another 2 million are internal refugees, militias run large parts of the country and the government sanctions religious repression, ethnic cleansing and vigilante violence. What does "victory" mean in such circumstances?
When the president announced his new policy of a "surge" in January, I argued that it was likely to have a positive military effect. Petraeus, the new commander in Iraq, is all that he has been advertised to be: an unusually smart and strategic general. His first moves in Baghdad show that. He has begun securing neighborhoods and is trying to prove to Iraqis that U.S. forces will go after both Sunni and Shiite extremists (though the latter have mostly melted away). But by his own estimation these achievements, even if they expand, are not enough. "Any student of history recognizes there is no military solution to a problem like that in Iraq," he said recently. "A political resolution of various differences ... of various senses that people do not have a stake in the successes of Iraq ... is crucial." The new secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, echoed this analysis, explaining that the role of the U.S. military in Iraq was to buy time for national reconciliation.
It would seem reasonable, then, to measure progress not just by neighborhoods secured and militants killed, but in political terms as well. And as it happens we have a series of benchmarks that have been set out at various points by the Bush administration and the Iraqi government.
Just before the referendum on Iraq's Constitution in October 2005, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad brokered a deal that secured Sunni participation in exchange for the Iraqi government's promising to set up a committee to amend the Constitution to incorporate Sunni concerns later. This was to have been done four months after the formation of Iraq's elected government—in other words, by September 2006. Nothing has happened. When he took office, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki announced plans for an ambitious program of national reconciliation. Nothing has happened.
In January, after persistent inquiries from Sen. Carl Levin, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrote to Levin setting out the benchmarks and timeline that the Iraqi government had signed off on. They included new election laws, the scheduling of provincial elections, laws on investment and oil-revenue sharing, the disbanding of militias, the reversal of de-Baathification and the granting of amnesty. In supporting the surge, Sen. John McCain also listed these goals as crucial to progress. But none of them has taken place. The revenue-sharing law has passed the cabinet but not yet moved through Parliament. The Los Angeles Times reported in February that Baghdad had abandoned plans to reverse de-Baathification. It quoted a U.S. official who said that the reform, far from advancing as promised, was "moving backward" and was "almost dead in the water." The amnesty law also appears moribund.
These two measures have historically proved crucial in almost any political process that has ended a civil war. Without some kind of amnesty and prospect for rehabilitation, there is little incentive for insurgents to lay down their arms and join the political process. Last week the Sunni vice president of Iraq urged his own government to begin talks with the insurgents, a position that General Petraeus has also taken.
There are less formal benchmarks that are also not being met. Maliki was to have reshuffled his cabinet to remove members who actively fomented civil war. That has not happened. The government was to finally start spending money in Sunni areas. That has not happened. Militias were to be demobilized. Instead, one of their most notorious leaders has been released from prison and publicly embraced by Maliki.
For four years President Bush has given Iraq's leaders unconditional support. They have not interpreted it as a reason to make compromises. In fact, talking to both U.S. officials in Iraq and Iraqi politicians, it appears that the chief reason there has been some movement on a few of these issues—the oil laws and noninterference in U.S. military operations, for instance—was the fear that Congress was going to force a withdrawal of U.S. forces.
The Democratic bills in Congress have two features: timeline and benchmarks. The rigid timelines the House bill imposes are problematic because they give the United States little room to maneuver in a highly volatile situation. But the benchmarks to measure Iraq's political progress—prominent in the Senate bill—are entirely in keeping with the basic strategy being outlined by Gates, Petraeus and, indeed, Bush. The only difference is that this is a strategy with teeth. If the Iraqi government does not do what the administration itself has argued is crucial to success, then American troops should begin withdrawing. (There will still be a need for a reduced force to fight Al Qaeda, secure Kurdistan and prevent major refugee flows.)
Announcing his new surge policy on Jan. 10, President Bush said, "I've made it clear to the prime minister and Iraq's other leaders that America's commitment is not open-ended. If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people." In a sense, Congress is merely following through on the president's promise.