Iraq: The Trouble With ‘Benchmarks’

Or else what, George?

From my new piece at

Now that they each have registered their respective positions about tying Iraq war funding to a withdrawal timetable, congressional Democrats and President Bush are seeking a workable compromise. The most likely deal appears to be to make continued U.S. commitment in Iraq conditional on the Iraqi government meeting certain political “benchmarks.” But there’s no reason to believe Iraqi leaders will take a new set of benchmarks any more seriously than they have taken Washington’s political exhortations until now.

The benchmarks, in fact, are already well known to the Iraqi leadership, because the U.S. has spent the past year cajoling the Iraqis over them — reaching out to the Sunnis by reopening talks on the constitution, passing a new oil law guaranteeing an equitable sharing of revenues across the regions, reversing most of the purge of former Baathists from political life and government employment, and dismantling sectarian Shi’ite militias. The response of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been to verbally reassure U.S. envoys all the way up to President Bush, but then to, if not quite ignore U.S. demands, either interpret them so broadly as to make them meaningless, or else simply stall. Al-Maliki is plainly hedging his bets, acceding to U.S. demands but at the same time cushioning Shi’ite militias from Coalition attack; he has even reportedly gone so far as to purge Iraqi military officers for being too aggressive in pursuing the Mahdi Army of his key ally, Moqtada al-Sadr.

Like most Iraqi leaders, Maliki is unlikely to believe that what his government does or does not do will prompt the U.S. to simply pack up and go home. The Iraqi leadership knows that the U.S. didn’t invade their country out of concern for their well-being. It went to war in order to secure its own objectives — and that’s exactly what the main Iraqi political factions are doing, too. (Indeed, it’s hardly surprising that both the Shi’ite and Kurdish parties that dominate the current government are more inclined to pursue their own objectives than follow Washington’s script, since each has bitter memories of being abandoned by the U.S. during their abortive uprisings against Saddam in 1991.) A U.S. withdrawal, after all, would mean abandoning many of its own objectives, fatally weakening the moderate Arab regimes it has vowed to protect, abandoning some of the world’s largest oil reserves to be fought over by jihadists, Baathists and proxies of Iran, while Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds slug it out on the under-card of what could quickly become a regional war. Right now, the U.S. presence may be all that is holding Iraq together, but letting it fall apart would deeply damage a far wider range of Washington’s interests.

The Iraqi leaders appear to recognize the limits on U.S. leverage in Baghdad a lot more clearly than Democrats in Congress.

To read the whole thing, click here.

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10 Responses to Iraq: The Trouble With ‘Benchmarks’

  1. Alex Morgan says:

    FYI, if you follow the Time link, the article there is truncated, (the penultimate paragraph) – at least as of the last few hours.

  2. Bernard Chazelle says:

    I completely agree with Tony. Maliki can tell that the US is bluffing. Bush will not pack his bags (sorry, our bags) any time soon. He knows that. Bush knows that. Everyone knows that — except, apparently, most Americans.

    If the Dems were smart –but that may be asking too much–they would cut off funding now (something, by the way, veto-proof). They would take a big hit from the public (who does not hate losing a war?) but they could recover in time to win the ’08 election.

    If they don’t cut off funding, they will not recover.
    If they win the election it will be a one-term presidency. Like Johnson’s.


    First of all, when Hillary says “if Bush doesn’t stop that war, I will” she is lying. No Democratic president will stop the war.

    The pressure not to be the new Jimmy Carter will make a full withdrawal impossible.
    Republicans would successfully pin the label of “defeatist” on the Dems for another generation.
    No one, not HIllary, not Obama, not Edwards will withdraw from Iraq. They won’t withdraw for the same reasons Bush won’t: the fear of being remembered as the President who lost the war in Iraq.

    But if a Dem president won’t have the guts to admit defeat, why would a Democratic Congress have the courage to do so? It probably does not. But the difference is that the blame gets spread all around. A president would have to assume full responsibility for that decision. A big difference. National leaders worry about history books and those nasty footnotes (ask Chamberlain).

    The economy is about to tank, and people wrongly conclude that this will bring the war to an end. Nonsense. The effect of the economy on a country’s willingness to continue fighting a war plays out over decades, not years.

    I’m afraid we’re in Iraq…. forever. And when we finally leave — at the end of eternity — the US will be join Prince as that entity formerly known as something: in this case, a superpower.

  3. Jorge says:

    I don’t think it’s a matter of the Iraqi government taking the benchmarks seriously. I think it’s a matter of being unable to meet those benchmarks.

    Look, this is a civil war with factions that are literally fighting to the death. When the people get tired of dying, the fighting will end. This will take a while. There are a lot of people in the world and a lot of them don’t really want to be here and they wouldn’t mind taking a lot of us with them. How do you stop that?

    1. Crack down on the guys who are making munitions.
    2. Stop transporting munitions to the area that you cannot control.

    I’m not sure if any of this is possible. This is likely to drag on for years. Even if we leave, it will drag on until the people living there decide they’ve had enough. Then you will see someone arise from the ashes who will crack down hard.

    Meet the new boss. Same as Saddam Hussein.

  4. Pat S. says:

    Bernard, I think what it will take is a Gerald Ford type to get us out of there. Problem is, that might take years, perhaps even a decade. I do think though that you underestimate the public on this one: if four years from now we’re still stuck in the same shitstorm, with our guys being maimed and killed with no tenable progress taking place, the electorate isn’t going to be placated with the current system of “Well we tried, but this Bush guy is just too stubborn” in use by the Democrats; they’re going to make moves in favor of actually getting the hell out. That’s when you might see Ford II emerge.

    And taking a purely objective point of view, I don’t think Iraq is going to drag us down from superpower status. America has a short memory (after all, we did start this whole misadventure a mere generation after Vietnam) and we’ve still got the pieces in place to ride things out on top for a solid 30-50 years. China will probably come up alongside us, but their economic machine is so tied up with ours that they’ll prop us up even if the unlikely occurs and the U.S. economy somehow stops itself from innovating. I would also add in this anecdote:

    Two weeks ago I went to visit my brother at Randolph AFB in Texas (though he’s Navy and has an intense dislike of the “Chair Force”) and, while there, took a tour of the T37 trainer he flew in most days. This is a 737 outfitted with about 12 navigation stations for training, each of which maintains radar, altimeters, and all that flight stuff that costs millions to maintain and run. There were four identical trainers parked on the tarmac nearby, each of which must have cost an equally huge amount. And these are 30-year-old training planes, hardly the cream of the fleet! I was struck by how crazy it is that our nation can not only buy this kind of hardware, but also spend the untold extra amounts on spare parts, maintenance, fuel and operations, while a country like, say, Benin could only dream about having the spare cash to purchase a single one of those navigation training stations.

    Any country with our population, that can spend that kind of disposable money to fuck around with something like officer training, is not going to falter easily. We can sit here and talk about the nuances of the macro-level inter-state relationships, but looking at the muscle of a country is quite a different thing.

  5. Pat S. says:

    My bad, that was the T-43.

  6. Frank S. says:

    Tony, if this article is still “alive” for you to see this comment, I recommend you to read Fukuyama’s piece at LA times.,0,108457.story

    It’s shockingly realist, one of the most lucid analyses I’ve seen on the subject. Couple excerpts:

    “The questions we need to address include: … How we can withdraw safely without a serious Iraqi army to cover our retreat? How will we dismantle enormous bases like Camp Liberty or Camp Victory and protect the diminishing numbers of U.S. troops in the country? Do we trust the Iraqi military and police sufficiently to turn over our equipment to them?”

    “An intensifying civil war will be a tragedy for Iraq, but it is not the worst outcome from a U.S. standpoint to have a number of bitterly anti-American groups duking it out among themselves.”

  7. Tony says:

    Frank– If you’re interested in the logistical challenges, you should also read Martin Van Creveldt’s analysis — don’t have a link handy…

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