President Bush's plan to send 20,000 more U.S. troops to Iraq will be the big headline from his address to the nation tonight. But the second half of the president's new strategy, the insistence that the government of Iraqi Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki meet a set of goals, or benchmarks, may, in the long term, be more critical to American success in Iraq.
It's not a new idea; the president and administration officials have been talking about benchmarks for quite a while. And at least up until now, the idea of pushing the Iraqis to meet certain goals — on issues like security, oil revenues, and power-sharing — has been a source of continuing frustration for the White House.
That frustration was clear in the president's face when he met with a small group of columnists shortly before last November's elections. He described the period in early 2006, after the Iraqi elections but before the formation of the government, as the White House waited — and waited and waited — for the Iraqis to get their act together. "It was just an agonizing period," Bush said. But the administration had no choice but to be patient with Iraqis who weren't used to trying to create a multi-party government. "Part of this is a brand new experience for these guys," the president explained. "We are working through a lot of serious issues, kind of psychological issues with these folks, as well as what it means to actually build consensus."
The question then, as it is now, was how hard to push the Iraqis toward the political agreements that were necessary for the government to succeed. Push too slowly and nothing gets done. Push too fast and the whole thing might fall apart. "Look, if we wanted to, we could put so much pressure on the Maliki government to topple it," the president said. "What good would that do? We could put so many demands on them, it might satisfy people in the short-term, but it would defeat the purpose for victory in Iraq.
And that was where specific goals came in. "The idea is to develop with the Iraqi government a series of benchmarks — oil, federalism, constitutional reform — there's like 20 different things," the president said, "and have that developed in a way that they're comfortable with and we're comfortable with." Bush said benchmarks couldn't be forced on Iraq — "It's a sovereign government" — but the administration was doing everything it could to move the process along.
But, so far at least, whatever pressure the U.S. has exerted on the Iraqi government has not been enough to force it into some of the key decisions it has to make to go forward. And when the Iraqis have moved forward — with the creation of a constitution and a government — it has sometimes come after U.S. deadlines have been set and passed. The Iraqis, in other words, seem to have a habit of waiting until the last minute and beyond before taking action.
I asked the president whether that might come from Iraqi confidence that, whatever the new government does, it will still have the support of the Bush administration. "Isn't the big problem with the Iraqis that they're so into brinksmanship, that the political breakthroughs we have are when we force deadlines on them, and that they let the deadlines pass and they wait until the train is about to hit them — "
"Yes," the president answered.
"And when you say that Iraq is the central front in the war on terror, they know you're not going to abandon the central front in the war on terror? So they think, 'Okay, well, we'll wait a while.'"
"That's that arc that [General George] Casey talks about, about how fast do you push, push them out without us, but if you push too fast, does it not achieve our objective," the president answered. The U.S. simply couldn't press beyond a certain point; there has to be a middle ground. "Part of the benchmark is precisely to create that sense of purpose for this government to have something to aim for," Bush said. He expressed faith — again, this was in late October — that the Maliki government could get things done. "The whole purpose of the benchmarks, is to have — okay, you said you're going to do this now, let's start getting some decisions made."
Today the U.S. is still waiting for some key Iraqi decisions to be made, for some of those benchmarks to be met. Will 20,000 more U.S. troops move that process along? George W. Bush is betting everything on it.
By Byron York
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online