Bait and Switch?:
 In today’s New York Times, Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus are moving away from the benchmarks as a way to analyze progress in Iraq.  This could be good or bad, but what it really means is that both of the administrators of U.S. oversight within Iraq believe that there will be no measurable progress on the benchmarks by September 15th. 

Nobody appears to have a clue as to what progress they can offer in its stead, either. 

Military leaders, political leaders, and experts are doubling back and trying to cover all the bases, and donning that political body-armor.  Just recently, three different experts have weighed in with even more confusing news for us news-consumers: one testified to Congress that he “reluctantly believed” we should withdraw; another two co-authered a much-blogged article in the NYT saying “it’s possible that we can win.”  Later, after this week’s word-storm, one of them has hedged a little, saying that security progress was the most notable, but this was not being enhanced by political progress.  The lack of political progress appears to be driving Mr. Crocker and General Petraeus’ concerns as well. 

The experts mirror the public at large: no news means speculation, finger-pointing, and the desperate search for portents.  All of this hedging is preparatory to the political hurricane that Bush appointees are apparently expecting come September.  The reason: political benchmarks have not made progress, especially since the Sunni bloc has boycotted proceedings in the Council of Representatives.

No subtlety:
The problem is not the benchmarks per se, or that there are benchmarks, or even that a report is due in September.  The problem is that the benchmarks have been given the status of a list, rather than a number of factors to be considered under a broader set of initiatives.  The initiatives as set forth in the Iraq Study Group Report did not give enough detail on security, but in every other way, they set context.  Context has been removed; only the list remains.  And it fits with the unhappy history of U.S. intervention so far: that quantity of goals met equaled quality in achievement. The blame belongs to us all.

Mr. Pollack and Mr. O’Hanlon made this point somewhat in the first paragraph of their NYT op-ed:

The Bush administration has over four years lost essentially all credibility. Yet now the administration’s critics, in part as a result, seem unaware of the significant changes taking place.

Posts here at Ramblin’ Gal are supposed to help us all (including myself) figure out what would be meaningful progress.  And yet, to be fair, even the idea of meaningful progress needs to be examined critically. Many times progress is illusory.  Other times, progress takes place out-of-sight and then rapidly appears in public.  But it’s only going to infuriate us all if only rationales are offered and previously-agreed upon signs are cast aside in favor of some new understanding of progress that we haven’t had a chance to view in advance.  

And, if we are not going to look at benchmarks mid-September, then we can look at a myriad of other things.  What other progress would be useful?  How about other diplomatic efforts in the region, with Syria, and Iran?  How about progress in Afghanistan?  In re-building our own military?  The truth is, switching from the benchmarks to some other standard opens up a discussion on standards all over again.  I don’t think that the Bush Administration can take that heat–unless Congress screws up again by arguing on Bush’s own terms.

All in all, I think that Mr. Bush, Mr. Crocker, and General Petraeus better stick to what has already been agreed upon.