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What Will Crocker Report In September?

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[This article has been updated, at the end.]

Last week, I wrote an article which detailed why General Petraeus' upcoming report to Congress may not be as trustworthy as it's been built up to be. This week, I would like to look at the other side of the coin -- American Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker's companion report to Congress.

Now, initially everyone though these were going to be two separate reports, but the White House has announced in the meantime that there will only be one report to Congress, and that -- by the way -- Petraeus and Crocker will have input to this report, but the White House will be actually writing this report. Unfortunately for Congress, they had written this into the law -- the text actually said:

(A) The President shall submit an initial report, in classified and unclassified format, to the Congress, not later than July 15, 2007, assessing the status of each of the specific benchmarks established above, and declaring, in his judgment, whether satisfactory progress toward meeting these benchmarks is, or is not, being achieved.

(B) The President, having consulted with the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the Commander, Multi-National Forces Iraq, the United States Ambassador to Iraq, and the Commander of U.S. Central Command, will prepare the report and submit the report to Congress.

The White House even tried to stop Petraeus from testifying before Congress in the open (as opposed to a secret hearing), until they noticed that the law specifically said that he would be made available to Congress for testimony in both "open" and "closed" settings. The White House quickly backpedaled on that one, thankfully, which means that both Petraeus and Crocker will indeed be answering Congress' questions in public, in open hearings.

I'm actually kind of surprised President Bush didn't try to claim executive privilege, which seems to be his knee-jerk reaction to anyone testifying before Congress. Even if Bush thought he'd eventually lose in court, it would take months if not years to resolve, just like all his other executive privilege claims

[Note to Senator Patrick Leahy: It's time to stop behaving like a gentleman and start issuing contempt of Congress citations -- one for every time Bush has done this].

But I digress. Everyone has already guessed what Petraeus is going to say -- some version or another of: "The Iraq glass is half-empty, half-full; so you should just give the surge another six months to a year to see what happens." It's not going to come as any surprise when he stands up in front of the klieg lights and says this. Both sides of the aisle are already sharpening their rhetoric to deal with this situation, as it is seen as pretty much inevitable at this point.

But what is Ambassador Crocker going to say?

Democrats have already been openly admitting that the "surge" is working, to some degree or another. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have been quoted saying so in the past week. The Edwards campaign (to their credit) stongly denounced such remarks, correctly saying "By cherry-picking one instance to validate a failed Bush strategy, it risks undermining the effort in the Congress to end this war." What all Democrats (even Hillary and Barack) also strongly state, though, is that there has been little to no progress (to date) politically in Iraq. Which makes Crocker's report crucial to the upcoming Congressional debate about the war.

In Iraq, Prime Minister Maliki is convening a conference of all the political parties in Iraq -- Sunni, Shi'ite, and Kurdish -- in a desperate effort to produce some sort of tangible progress he can present to America to convince us that political progress is being made. The problem is, he's starting from a pretty deep hole, since ministers have been abandoning his cabinet in the past few months (much like rats from a sinking ship), as well as parliament members who are boycotting his government entirely. So just to get back to where he was when the surge began would look like progress to him. But not to America, and (assumably) not to Ambassador Crocker.

It should be noted that Democratic Senator Carl Levin (who is also Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee) has just publicly called for Iraqis to get rid of Maliki, signaling his assessment of the political situation for Iraq's central government as basically hopeless until they get someone new to run things.

The White House, meanwhile, had to give a report to Congress last month which itemized progress in Iraq (both military and political) on 18 benchmarks which Congress had previously laid down. When most of the mainstream media looked at the benchmark assessment the White House released in July, the grades were reported thusly: out of the 18 benchmarks, eight are graded "satisfactory progress," eight are graded "unsatisfactory progress," and two are graded "incomplete."

The grading is actually a little more complex. For the benchmark "Enacting and implementing legislation addressing amnesty," for instance, the White House reports: "The prerequisites for a successful general amnesty are not present; however, in the current security environment, it is not clear that such action should be a near-term Iraqi goal." This is counted as "unsatisfactory progress," however it seems that the White House is arguing that this one shouldn't even be on the list.

The two "incomplete" are actually fractional grades -- one benchmark is broken down into four parts, three of which are "unsatisfactory" and one "satisfactory." The other benchmark is graded half and half. So the real total should be eight and three-quarters (8.75) "satisfactory" and nine and one-quarter (9.25) "unsatisfactory."

But the real question is what the numbers will be in September. The law states that Bush has to report "following the same procedures and criteria" as the July benchmark report. Which means that to show any "political progress" to Congress, they're going to have to report better numbers in September.

There are three benchmarks from the list of 18 which I just can't see the White House attempting to claim any progress on: de-Ba'athification, amnesty for insurgents, and disarming the militias. I just don't think the White House could, with any credibility, claim that any of those three are going to have "satisfactory progress" come mid-September.

There are five benchmarks that the White House might try to claim "satisfactory progress" on, as well as fractional parts of two others. Remember, they don't have to claim that these benchmarks have been fully "completed," just that "satisfactory progress" is being made on them. With Maliki attempting his desperate last-ditch conference, it is conceivable that progress could be claimed on any or all of these.

The first is the oil revenue-sharing law. For obvious reasons, this is number one on Bush's list of things he'd like to see accomplished. I have written before chronicling Bush's cheery predictions -- for over a year, now -- that success is right around the corner on this issue. So whatever leverage the U.S. has on Maliki (and the Iraqi government at large) will obviously be brought to bear on this issue first. Whether they actually can pass anything through their parliament remains to be seen, but if they even get a bill out of committee, Bush will (not surprisingly) claim "satisfactory progress" has been made. But it's doubtful that even this minor progress can be accomplished, given the importance of such a law to the differing Iraqi factions.

The second one is to turn over full authority to Iraqi commanders to make tactical and operational decisions. This one is rather vaguely worded, so it would be easy for Bush to claim progress, even if not much progress has been made.

Next is also rather vague: "Ensure that Iraqi Security Forces [ISF] are providing even-handed enforcement of the law." The argument that "we're making progress with the Sunnis in al-Anbar" might be used to justify marking this one as "successful progress" being made.

The next one is numeric, so it will be harder to fudge. Increase the number of ISF units capable of operating independently. This is more a military assessment than political, meaning that the White House is less likely to try to claim progress if there has been none. But it remains a possibility.

The last one is kind of strange, but again, who knows what could come out of Maliki's conference? "Ensuring that Iraq's political authorities are not undermining or making false accusations against members of the ISF." If the conference announces any sort of progress on this front at all, then Bush can claim it is "satisfactory."

There are also two fractional issues which the White House could conceivably claim progress on. One-fourth of the benchmark which deals with provisional elections is "establishing provincial council authorities." And the other one has two goals: "reducing the level of sectarian violence," and "eliminating militia control of local security." They've already claimed in the July report that the Iraqis are making "satisfactory progress" on reducing sectarian violence, so the other half of that really depends on how you define "militia." Once again, al-Anbar will be held up as a shining example. But what we have done in al-Anbar is essentially turn local security over to the local (Sunni) militias. If you define "militia" as "Shi'ite militia," however, then it's even conceivable that the White House may try to claim progress, but this seems doubtful, since the southern city of Basra is currently sinking into a Shi'ite-on-Shi'ite militia war.

When you total it up, it could be as many as 14 benchmarks in which "satisfactory progress" is being made, three with "unsatisfactory progress," and one still half-and-half. That would be (numerically, at least) substantial progress to tell the media about. Realistically, I think the numbers may be closer to: 11 satisfactory, four unsatisfactory, and one incomplete. That would show some progress, but not enormous amounts of progress. Bush may even try to claim a handful of the benchmarks are fully complete, which would further bolster his case.

But the problem with the benchmark list is that it doesn't accurately measure progress on the ground for average Iraqi citizens. For instance, there is no mention in the list of benchmarks provided by Congress (for the White House to report on) of any measure of providing sufficient electricity and clean water to the public. There is no mention of training enough engineers, technicians, and maintenance personnel to keep the reconstruction projects running properly, after the American companies who build them inevitably leave. There is no mention of levels of security for the general public. There is no mention of getting Iraq's oil output up past pre-war levels. There is no mention of getting a banking system up and running in Iraq. There is no mention of "stopping the ethnic and sectarian cleansing" which is turning Iraq into enclaves of Sunnis, Shi'ites, and Kurds -- even while the "surge" continues. There is no mention of securing Iraq's porous borders. There is no mention of the steadily growing problem of Iraqi refugees which are fleeing by the millions to neighboring countries. There are a lot of problems Iraq faces which this list of benchmarks does not even address, in other words.

Congress could most assuredly have better worded the benchmark reporting law, in order to get clearer answers from the Bush White House. But that should be seen as water under the bridge, at this point.

While it might be expected that Crocker is going to toe the line and report as rosy an Iraq scenario as can possibly be spun from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the reality may be different next month. Crocker is quoted in a recent article from McClatchy saying "The progress on the national level issues has been extremely disappointing and frustrating to all concerned -- to us, to Iraqis, to the Iraqi leadership itself... We do expect results, as do the Iraqi people, and our support is not a blank check." The whole article is sobering, and worth a read.

Now, this may be a shameless attempt to "lower the bar," so if he reports anything next month to Congress even slightly better than the grim scenario he speaks of in this article, then he (and Republicans everywhere) can claim: "See, it's not as bad as Crocker was thinking just a few weeks ago."

Or it may be his actual, honest opinion. Which means his report to Congress may have just as grim (and refreshingly reality-based) an outlook.

One way or another, I predict that Crocker's report is ultimately going to be more influential than even Petraeus' report to Congress, in terms of defining the war debate that is sure to follow in the halls of the Capitol. And any tantalizing signals he gives to the press in the meantime bear watching closely.


[The full July White House report on individual benchmark progress in Iraq can be read at the White House's website, or downloaded as a PDF file. I have posted a summary (cut-and-pasted, not edited) of all 18 benchmarks on my blog, which is easier to read.]

[Egotistical Program Note: Last week's article was cited in a "look what the crazy leftists are saying" editorial, written by Michael Goldfarb, who is an editor over at Rupert Murdoch's Weekly Standard. If I'm annoying the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy™ then I guess I must be doing something right...]


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[Egotistical Program Note 2:]

Huffington Post's main page is currently running a huge headline article about the ACLU's release of the Presidential Advance Manual. The link takes you to an article from the Washington Post which states that it "came to light recently." I found this amusing, since I wrote about the same manual back in June here at the Huffington Post, under the title "ACLU Provides Concrete Evidence Of Bush's Contempt For Free Speech" so I guess I "scooped" the Washington Post by two months. Not bad!