The Final Milestone in Iraq?

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Iraqi parliamentarians attend the inauguration of Iraq's new national unity government inside the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq.

President Bush, speaking in a packed Chicago convention center on Monday, called the formation of a new government in Iraq "a turning point in the struggle between freedom and terror." The words had a familiar ring. Since 2003, the Bush Administration has described event after event in Iraq as milestones, turning points, moments that would dial back the chaos and bloodshed that has consumed the country. There was the capture of Saddam in December 2003; the handover of sovereignty to the Iraqis in June 2004; the writing of the Constitution in September; the successful referendum on the Constitution in October; and December's parliamentary elections.

None of those milestones really delivered on the promises that preceded them. But there was always another event on the horizon to look ahead to. Until now. There are no more upcoming elections, or ceremonies, or looming deadlines — just the messy task of building up the country's nascent government and anemic security forces. And that's an effort that has no neatly painted goal lines.

Gone is the ability to fall back on the familiar, sunny formulations like the one offered earlier this month by Major General Rick Lynch, spokesman for the coalition forces in Baghdad: "When a government is formed and truly reaches out to the people, we believe you'll see a great decline in violent activities in Iraq." Obviously, that hasn't happened yet. Even Bush himself seems to concede that the milestones he once lauded were mere chimera. "Terrorists did not lay down their arms after three elections in Iraq, and they will continue to fight this new government," Bush noted on Monday, without acknowledging that each of those moments had been previously hailed by the Administration as a turning point.

An MBA President who prides himself on setting clear goals for his staff has missed a basic point about metrics and war. The only real measure of defeating the insurgency is a reduction in their attacks and numbers — not ancillary questions like how many Iraqi units are fit to fight without U.S. assistance. A functioning Parliament could provide a release valve for rising sectarian tensions, but the fact is both disaffected Sunnis and Shi'ites are still using the threat of violence to gain political leverage. It is wrong to assume that each new step toward democracy, however laudable, will persuade jihadists to lay down their arms; those who disdain Western-style democracy aren't likely to be persuaded by its implementation.

Other Presidents have made similar miscalculations. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson both pointed to democratization in South Vietnam as a hopeful sign that the North might be sapped of its support. Perhaps now that the last milestone has been reached, the Bush Administration can get back to reality.