03/28/2008 07:46 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why the Administration Won't Define Success in Iraq

What does it mean if violence goes down in Iraq?

"Success of the surge," says the administration.

What does it mean, then, if the violence goes up in Iraq?

"Success of the surge," they say.

What? How can you manage to say that? Well, that"s what the Pentagon did yesterday, claiming that the exploding violence in Iraq is a sign of progress.

For years, we've been asking "What is success" in Iraq? How do we know we're making progress? And, for years, we've gotten nothing but a vague answer from the administration, with no hard metrics.

Now, admittedly, for years I assumed it was because the administration and its proponents simply had no answer -- that they couldn't figure out what the end-state was.

Now, today, it's become painfully clear: It's not that the administration CAN'T define success, it's that they WON'T. For, to lay down some specifics would pin them down, make them accountable. And, above all, it would keep them from claiming success no matter what. Without defining progress, they can make it up on the fly. It can be reduced violence one day, and if the next day sees dozens of deaths, progress can mean that. If a nuclear explosion went off in the middle of Baghdad, you can bet your bottom dollar that the administration would say THAT is a sign of progress.

Here's the blunt truth of it, though. As we at laid out in our "State of the Wars, Military and Veterans" report, true progress in Iraq cannot be made until the Mahdi Army and Muqtada al-Sadr are convinced to give up their arms and become a willing and active partner for peace. As we've seen this week, when the Mahdi Army wants to unleash mass violence, they can do it. Then they'll lay low, rebuild, and launch new attacks. And that cycle will continue forever, until there is a settlement.

That is not an American military problem -- it is an Iraqi political and diplomatic problem. Resolution of this problem was supposed to be a by-product of the surge (though the White House refused to say that would be the end-state of the surge, and now I know why). The surge was supposed to give some time and space to the Iraqi government to confront these tough internal political issues. Yet, as we've seen, it has done anything but that.

I would say that's proof that the surge has failed.

But, of course, I prefer to judge success and failure on pesky little things like metrics. The White House spin machine was wily enough to not concern themselves with petty things like that.