Grading The War On A Curve

President George W. Bush pauses in the Oval Office after addressing the nation on his strategy for Iraq, at the White House in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2007. Bush says he is working on the recommendations of Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, to begin bringing home some of the 168,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq.
I was among the minority of Americans the other night (Thursday, Sept. 13)- I watched the president's speech about Iraq. Only 23 million people saw the speech, down from 42.5 million for his Jan. 10 speech on Iraq. More people watched the speech on CBS than any other network, but the speech on CBS was helped by its lead-in of "Big Brother." No comment.

I'm not sure why more people didn't watch the speech. It wasn't at the same time as football or "Skating With America's Most Famous Convicts" or anything like that. It's possible that many people just didn't expect anything special from the speech.

I, too, didn't expect President Bush to drop any verbal bombshells. I didn't think he'd say anything like, "Boy, have I been wrong. This thing's turned into a bloody civil war, and we've got to get out of there as soon as possible." But I was interested to hear what he was going to say about the "benchmarks" that previously he had told us were so important. Congress mandated them earlier in the year during the debate on financing the increase in American troops. These benchmarks would indicate how much progress the Iraqi government was making in establishing itself as a Democratic entity capable of governing - eventually without our help. Evaluating the benchmarks would be a way for the administration to give the progress in Iraq a "report card." I was listening pretty closely to his speech, and I never heard him mention the words "benchmark" or "report card."

This was curious because as recently as May, the president said, "One message I have heard from people of both parties is that benchmarks makes sense, and I agree."

It's possible that he just forgot to bring it up. If he's anything like me, if I don't write things down, I often forget them. Then again, details about a war aren't really the same as a dozen eggs.

It's more likely that he didn't bring up the benchmarks because, well, things aren't going well in Iraq. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the number of Iraqi army units capable of operating independently declined from 10 in March to six in August. Sounds like they're moving backwards, doesn't it? In fact the GAO said that out of the 18 benchmarks, only three had been achieved, two had been partly accomplished, and 13 had not been met. Five out of 18 is about 28 percent. When I went to school, a 28 was an F.

Not surprisingly, the White House disagreed with the GAO report. They said that Iraqi leaders did much better than the GAO said they did. The administration said that Iraq had met 9 of the 18 benchmarks. I guess the White House grades on a curve. But 50 percent is still an F. Why wasn't the president talking about how disappointed he was in the progress of the Iraqi government?

Well, now it turns out that they have decided not to pay attention to these benchmarks that they had told us were so important. An administration official said the day after the president's speech that the White House hoped to scrap the "benchmark exercise" completely, and just rely on the progress reports of General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker.

That's okay with me, but the president keeps changing the rules. It's as if you were playing gin rummy with a friend, and you always play that aces are low, and all of sudden, he says aces are high. It's not right. When the Iraq Commission said things that the president didn't agree with, he decided to ignore their report. Now that the "benchmarks" don't support his position, he's abandoning them. What's he going to do if Petraeus or Crocker says things he doesn't want to hear? Say they're just kidding? I wish he'd just choose one way of measuring the progress of the war, tells us what it is, and stick with it.

Of course, the reality is that there is only one kind of "report card," one way of "keeping score," that many Americans care about. It's the number of people who are killed in Iraq each day. If the number's greater than zero, it's a failing grade.

Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.

By Lloyd Garver