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Daily Column
US Papers Monday: Everybody Loves Benchmarks
Washington's "Blame Maliki" Consensus; Oil Sector Update
By GREG HOADLEY 05/07/2007 01:57 AM ET
It’s a rare day when the Christian Science Monitor has as many Iraq-related stories as the New York Times and Washington Post combined, but the CSM catches the big guys flat-footed today.

Virtually all of the most important Iraq-related reads of the day show up in the Monitor’s pages, including an analysis of the unfolding debate between the White House and Congress over “benchmarks” for Iraq, an update on the Iraqi oil industry, and a follow-up on the regional diplomatic situation after the Sharm al-Shaykh conference.

In hard news and analysis, the two big East Coast dailies are content to print their daily Iraq violence roundups, while the Times chimes in with an editorial backing the “benchmark” strategy, which seems to have no detractors these days, apart from the ongoing debate over the consequences of a possible Iraqi “failure” to meet the goals to be legislated for it in Washington.

Over 50 Iraqis were killed in attacks across the country, Alissa Rubin writes in the Times. A suicide bomber in a produce market in Baghdad’s Bayya' neighborhood killed at least 35 and injured as many as 50 when he detonated his explosives-laden truck during the morning rush. The Times article surveys the scene from the devastated market after the bombing. A car bomb killed two in Mansour district. A suicide car bomb on a police station in Samarra killed 12, including the police chief. At the same time, “residents reported seeing about 20 cars filled with armed masked men drive into Samarra, where they appeared to be patrolling the streets in a show of force.” The masked gunmen were likely from al-Qa'ida in Mesopotamia, Rubin writes. Six GIs and an embedded journalist were killed in a Diyala bombing, and two more US soldiers died in Baghdad. In Sadr City, the US says it blew up a house because it was used for weapons storage, an act that angered residents. The US also alleges that the house was used for torture because it claims a room in the house contained handcuffs, bloodstains, and facial masks.

Sudarsan Raghavan and Karin Brulliard round up Iraq news for the Post, writing that . Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of the Army's Task Force Marne, told reporters on Sunday that “All of us believe that in the next 90 days, you'll probably see an increase in American casualties because we are taking the fight to the enemy . . . This is the only way we can win the fight." The Post reporters also write that UK forces announced the death of a British soldier injured in an attack last week.


The US, its apparent ally the Iraqi government, and their most bitter armed opponents in Iraq, are all in agreement about one thing at least: if the Americans were to withdraw it is unlikely that the current constitutional order in Iraq would continue. Iraqi security forces would be overrun by their opponents, and even the country’s ruling coalition could splinter. There is broad agreement that the political order in Iraq is underpinned by American boots on the ground.

And yet, having birthed the political order in Iraq, in which sectarianism is the secret to political relevance, the US will now scold the Iraqi government like a disobedient child. With the passage of a bill demanding that Iraq meet certain “benchmarks,” Washington -- Republicans and Democrats -- will smugly require Iraqis to accomplish all the things it could not -- or else.

While the consequences of Iraqi failure to meet the “benchmarks” are being debated, a bipartisan consensus is emerging in Washington over the strategy of shifting responsibility for the outcome in Iraq to the “fledgling” Iraqi government, forgetting that the US remains the occupying power.

The benchmark strategy seems targeted to solve problems in Washington more than to solve problems in Iraq, with both parties angling for the best possible electoral position, i.e. one that is insulated from events in Iraq.

The Democratic strategy: If Iraq descends further into chaos, blame Maliki for not meeting the “benchmarks,” and blame the GOP for not withdrawing; but if violence subsides, then take credit for having forced the benchmarks on the Bush administration and the recalcitrant Maliki government in the first place. From the GOP side, there is a parallel set of what-ifs: If Iraq further deteriorates, blame Maliki for not meeting the benchmarks, and blame the Democrats for having intervened in the process; if the condition improves, claim that the “surge,” and indeed the invasion itself is responsible for allowing the Iraqis to meet the benchmarks in the first place.

Two things are overlooked in this particularly uncharitable debate. First, lost somehow in the calls for Iraqis to “stand up” and “assume responsibility” is the heavy US role in creating the gridlocked constitutional order and its sectarian underpinnings in the first place.

Secondly, charges that the United States is “bearing the burden” in Iraq while the Iraqi government whistles Dixie appear extremely callous in light of the heavy price that Iraqis have paid in the last several years. While the highest totals are still debated, it is beyond dispute to say that for every one US soldier that has died in Iraq at least twenty Iraqi civilians have been killed, not to mention the worsening humanitarian crisis of displacement, lack of basic services, and economic hardship.

As for Maliki, the prime minister is both a product and a victim of the sectarian order that he now will be required to manipulate in order to achieve Washington’s benchmarks.

David Rogers writes in the Journal that "House Dems are drafting a bill that would provide about $43 billion, or 45% of the $95.5 billion, in defense spending up front to avoid any disruption of operations prior to the second vote. Military personnel and operations accounts would get about 50% of the administration's request, and increased funds are provided for defense health programs and production of high-priority armored vehicles. The remaining 55%, or about $53 billion, would be withheld pending the second vote. That is expected to come in late July following on two reports required from the administration on progress made toward stated goals in Iraq and the performance of the Baghdad government.”

From the Pentagon’s side, the aim is to water down the “benchmarks” as much as possible, rather than oppose them outright. The administration is keen to keep any benchmarks as vague as possible, Gordon Lubold writes in the Monitor. With statistical evidence inconclusive, it may be impossible to show success or failure, and broadly formulated benchmarks may also share in increasing the haziness. Gen. Petraeus has not revealed the specifics of how he will evaluate the “surge,” although he provided a “pre-decisional think piece” to the Pentagon on April 25. Gen. Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, suggests very broad metrics: “One, do the people in Baghdad feel more secure today ... and (two,) do they believe that the next day and the days beyond they'll be even more secure than they are today?”

Times editors embrace the Democratic strategy on benchmarks, and call for them to include enforceable consequences. They write that Congress “must make clear that American support for (Maliki’s) failures -- and Mr. Bush’s -- is fast waning.” They add, “Each time Baghdad fails a test, Mr. Bush lowers his requirements and postpones his target dates — the kind of destructive denial Mr. Bush called, in another context, the soft bigotry of low expectations.” It is telling that Times eds borrow from the debate about education and pedagogy in making their case about Iraq policy.

“What Mr. Maliki needs to do to slow Iraq’s bloodletting is no mystery,” the NYT's editors add. “Iraq’s security forces must stop siding with the Shiite militias. Iraq’s oil revenue must be apportioned fairly. Anti-Baathist laws now used to deny Sunni Arabs employment and political opportunities must be rewritten to target only those responsible for the crimes of the Saddam Hussein era.” Very easy to call for in an editorial, but Times eds must be aware that the security forces do more than “side” with Shi'a militias, the oil law as drafted will not simultaneously satisfy nationalist demands for central control of oil resources and the demands of the Kurdish negotiators, whom Washington helped come to power as a state within the Iraqi state, and the de-Ba'thification law, which Washington facilitated, has been opposed by the most powerful governing forces and closest Washington allies in Iraq. They close with the blame-Maliki refrain: “If Mr. Maliki and Mr. Bush still don’t get it, Congress will have to enact new means of enforcement, and back that up with a veto-proof majority.”

In other coverage:


In the wake of the Iraq-focused international conference in Egypt last week, Howard LaFranchi writes “One gauge to watch: Does Vice President Dick Cheney build on results of Sharm el-Sheik as he tours the Middle East this week, or will a more muscular approach suggest ongoing conflict over diplomacy's role in dealing with Iraq?” The long-term significance of the conference is open for debate, with some suggesting that the gathering may have begun to give Iraq’s neighbors a stake in the Maliki government, and others expressing skepticism about that same government’s capabilities. LaFranchi interviews a number of US diplomatic experts for reaction and critique.

“Four years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the story of Iraqi petroleum remains one of great promises unfulfilled. Iraqi oil did not pay for the first round of postwar national reconstruction, as Bush administration officials had predicted. Nor has the industry come close to matching its decades-old pumping record of 3.7 billion barrels a day – a level at which Iraq might become a vital source of oil for thirsty world markets,” Peter Grier writes. “The Iraqi government projects that production will rise to 3.1 million barrels a day by 2008. Given current problems, that's unrealistic, say US experts,” Grier reports. The oil industry suffers from a number of ailments, including insecurity and direct attacks on pipelines, deadlock over legislation to regulate the sector, and the need for heavy investment. The al-Basrah oil terminal facility has been rehabilitated to work at full speed, but may not need to do so for years.

The monetary costs of the Iraq war are climbing, David Francis writes in an opinion column, with one count placing it at $423 billion so far. “Even if the war were to end in days, its costs to taxpayers will drag on for decades. A study by Linda Bilmes, an economist at Harvard University, and Columbia University's Joseph Stiglitz last fall estimated total costs could reach $2.2 trillion – "and counting." That was before the president's recent ‘surge’ plan,” Francis writes. (These numbers include such hidden long-term costs as veterans’ care and equipment replacement.) “As it is, the proposed $623 billion military budget for fiscal 2008 will mean a higher military bill (in inflation-adjusted dollars) than at any time since World War II,” Francis continues. A proposal to unify spending on military forces, homeland security, and nonmilitary international engagement may not go anywhere.


George Tenet and Douglas Feith, both key administration players in the lead-up to the Iraq war, also both teach at Georgetown. The Post's Dafna Linzer looks at the two men who try to shift blame for Iraq to each other’s former agencies, now that they have offices in the same building. NEW YORK TIMES

In a contributed op-ed, Hussain Abdul-Hussain, an Iraqi expat, describes a jarring conversation he had with a former classmate who has since embraced his Shi'a identity more than his Iraqi identity, according to the author, which lowered his hopes for a secular and united Iraq. It should be noted that one sectarian cannot speak for all Iraqi Shi'a.


The Army is repairing every door on every Humvee in combat in Iraq, Tom Vanden Brook writes, because the doors can jam shut and trap troops inside during an attack. The door jamming is an unintended consequence of “up-armoring” the vehicles. The Marines are making similar fixes.


In an interview, ex-CIA director George Tenet said that “intelligence analysts weren't asked to predict the consequences of the decisions to purge members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party from positions of authority in Iraq, and to demobilize the Iraqi army. Those decisions, he said in an interview, weren't contemplated before the invasion and weren't the subject of extensive discussion among top policy makers,” Gerald Sieb writes.


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