As the Washington Post reported Tuesday, there are several stark differences between the two latest high-profile government assessments of Iraq. While the Government Accounting Office (GAO) seems to think the situation on the ground is dire enough to require a new strategy, the Defense Department's latest report places a greater emphasis on security gains achieved as a result of the "surge" strategy.
But there is one general area of agreement among the two reports: namely, that political progress achieved thus far has been incremental in nature, and could easily be eradicated by random events on the ground.
According to the GAO's report:
"Although Iraq has enacted some legislation it judged important for national reconciliation, implementation of the legislation and its outcomes are uncertain. For example, the amnesty legislation is currently being implemented as detainees have been approved for release, but a limited number have been set free as of May 2008. Moreover, implementation of the de-Ba'athification law has stalled, and holding free and fair provincial elections poses logistical and security challenges."
And though the Department of Defense's report endeavors to put a better spin on the in-process nature of such tricky political compromises -- employing phrases such as "members are currently debating this draft" and "plans ... are already underway" -- it nevertheless concludes that on the matter of elections law and oil revenue sharing, "the road ahead is unlikely to be smooth or predictable."
The shared assessment by the GAO and DoD that the already meager political progress may easily be rolled back could impact the way the issue of Iraq plays in the presidential campaign -- if only by pushing past the question of whether the "surge" was a smart military tactic and onto the more substantive policy ground of whether an improved security atmosphere is bringing about a stable, democratic society.
While Sen. John McCain has frequently touted his early support for the military strategy employed by Gen. David Petraeus, he has been less likely of late to cast severe doubt on the lack of political progress. A March profile in Maclean's magazine quoted the Arizona Republican as saying, "in case you missed it a few days ago, the Iraqi parliament passed a law concerning reconciliation, and by the way, they passed a budget -- something we can't do in Washington."
Then, in his roundly panned June 3 speech from New Orleans, McCain submitted that "the Iraqi Government has begun to make progress toward political reconciliation," without noting the vulnerable nature of those small gains.
In fact, McCain only rarely acknowledges what he described recently as the "insufficient" political progress in Iraq.
Gen. David Petraeus has been much more blunt on this score, telling the Washington Post in March that "no one" believes that there has been "sufficient progress by any means in the area of national reconciliation [in Iraq]."
But McCain's taciturn nature on such shortcomings doesn't simply have consequences for domestic political maneuvering. Joseph A. Christoff, director of International Affairs and Trade at the GAO, believes that it's important for American officials to communicate the dangers of political stalemate to Iraq's leaders -- clearly and consistently. As Christoff told The Huffington Post: "The intent of the surge was to reduce violence so that it would promote national reconciliation. The thinking was, if violence goes down it would allow the three key parties -- Sunnis, Shia and the Kurds -- to come together to develop legislation. Now it's incumbent on us to reinforce this to the Iraqis and their Council of Representatives: that [with a decrease in violence] now it's up to them to not only pass important legislation like De-Baathification [reform] and hydrocarbon laws, but to implement them as well."