Bad News in Bush's Iraq Report Card

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

President George W. Bush speaks at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington July 11, 2007.

Were the White House's report on Iraq progress and the accompanying presidential briefing a child's report card, a quick glance at the grades would give the impression that Junior was doing okay. But a careful read of the full text of the report would produce an anxious sweat on the brow of any parent. That's because Junior's best grades are in phys ed, music and art, while he's flunking history, math and citizenship. Even more critically, the teacher seems to be saying that Junior might be able to be advance to the next grade if he and his teacher work really hard at it for a long time to come — but the teacher is facing mandatory retirement, and won't be hanging around long enough to help Junior make the grade.

In a presidency that has enforced tough assessment standards in schools, the White House's Initial Benchmark Assessment Report, released Thursday, has allowed itself the latitude to grade on the curve. Reading between the lines, it becomes clear that the expanded U.S. troop levels achieved with the surge will have to be maintained well beyond September, which is increasingly being viewed in Congress as a deadline for a major strategic shift involving a withdrawal of U.S. troops. But some Pentagon officials say progress in Iraq will require sustaining the surge through 2008, even as Army officials say they can only maintain it through April.

The report also shows that progress on goals identified as being key to a peaceful and prosperous Iraq — sharing oil revenues, easing Ba'athists back into the national government, and holding provincial elections — is scant, and sliding backwards in some areas. The number of Iraqi security forces able to operate independently of U.S. forces, for example, is lower now than it was in January. The good news is limited to less-important areas, such as creating panels to study the Baghdad security plan and to review the country's constitution.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates wasn't putting an optimistic spin on the future when asked Friday if any of the key benchmarks will be met by the time Army General David Petraeus gives his progress report in September. "I don't know whether or how many of those items — whether it's de-Ba'athification or the hydrocarbon law or others — will in fact be enacted... by the time General Petraeus does his evaluation," he told reporters at the Pentagon.

What's particularly dismaying is the leniency of the grading. Congress required the White House to report on whether or not "satisfactory progress" was being achieved on the 18 benchmarks. The White House took that to mean that all it had to do was find evidence of a "positive trajectory" in each category. That approach allowed it to claim, for example, that the Iraqi government is doing a satisfactory job of spending its $10 billion capital budget even as the report simultaneously declares that "it remains unclear whether the Ministry [of Oil, the biggest spender in the Iraqi government] has made any real effort to expend those funds."

In short, however reassuring the grades may be, there's little cause for comfort in the teacher's comments.