There is an air of unreality about the whole benchmark exercise, well-intentioned as many of its sponsors were. The benchmarks are not really about Iraq and what is happening there, but about how to correct our own pathologies -- specifically, White House solipsism and popular frustration with the seemingly endless tragedy the administration and Congress have jointly engineered in Iraq. Iraq having stubbornly refused to conform to the ideological hallucinations and political will of our leaders, these leaders now find themselves caught between the ugly realities of Iraq and the desire of the American people to change the channel to some less disturbing drama. The benchmarks are weapons in this game. They are of very dubious relevance to Iraq itself, where they are merely the latest manifestation of wishful thinking from Washington.
The reality is that the United States has unmatched military power in Iraq but no political authority. (Indeed, the presence of U.S.forces in Iraq is regarded as illegitimate by most of the world, including Iraqis, making resistance to our forces legitimate in their eyes.) There is still no Iraqi state and an alien occupation exercises the monopoly of force that would be a principal attribute of any Iraqi state. The concept behind the "surge" is that the Green Zone-based regime has legitimacy sufficient to be empowered by the restoration of order in key parts of Iraq. The strategy is essentially to empower the Baghdad regime by transferring to it the monopoly on the legitimate use of force. But the problem is that the regime lacks not just power but authority, in the sense of acceptance by Iraqis and others in the region of its legitimacy and right to make binding decisions for an Iraqi polity that no longer exists.
Meanwhile, our use of force is not seen by many Iraqis as legitimate and the more we use our military power the more we delegitimize it. The more the current Iraqi regime is seen to depend on our military power, the less legitimacy and authority it enjoys. We cannot transfer the authority we do not have to a regime that lacks both the power and the authority to receive it.
Through heroic efforts, Gen. Petraeus and his troops are achieving a modest level of military progress but there is no way to translate this into political progress. Indeed, the very emphasis on military means that this strategy embodies deprives Iraqis of the incentive to explore the political compromises necessary to create a legitimate state or a government with the authority necessary to govern. That, when all the spin is stripped away, is what the interim report to be released today will show.
Ambassador Chas Freeman is director of the Middle East Policy Council in Washington, DC. In his years of service for the US government, Freeman did a term as assistant secretary of defense and served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War.