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Originally Published: 9/5/2007


By The Issue Wonk



As Congress comes back in session and the arguments about whether or not to continue to occupy Iraq start again, I thought we ought to look at the history of why we are all waiting with bated breath for a “September Report.”  I also thought we ought to look at all the various reports that have been released recently.  In order to understand the issues as they unfold in the coming months we need to have a good understanding of what has occurred.


Occupation Funding


The issue started last spring when Congress debated whether to fund the occupation of Iraq.  They finally passed a bill that appropriated $124 billion but set a timetable for pulling out of Iraq.  It required President Bush to determine, by July 1st, whether progress was being made and, if not, troop withdrawal would begin immediately with a goal of having most combat troops out of Iraq within 180 days.  If progress was being made, troop withdrawal would begin by October 1st, with a goal of having most removed within 180 days, “except for those protecting American facilities, those engaged in counterterrorism and those training and equipping Iraqi forces.”  It also blocked spending on American forces unless they were judged “fully mission capable” by military standards, and prohibited military tours in Iraq of more than one year.  The requirements weren’t all that strict as the president could have waived them if he so wished.1 


Several retired generals endorsed the bill.  Maj. Gen. John Batiste called it “important legislation [that] sets a new direction for Iraq.”  Lt. Gen. William Odom said it will “re-orient U.S. strategy to achieve regional stability, and win help from many other countries – the only way peace will eventually be achieved.”2  Bush vetoed the bill.3  He said, “I believe artificial timetables of withdrawal would be a mistake. . . I will strongly reject an artificial timetable withdrawal and/or Washington politicians trying to tell those who wear the uniform how to do their job.”4  However, at this time, he asked Army General David Petraeus for a progress report in early September.  “That helped stave off Republican defections as Congress debated whether to impose a timetable for troop withdrawals.  But it also established September as a deadline for clearer military and political progress in Iraq. . . GOP leaders warn that they will need dramatic evidence of progress — something that has been in short supply in Iraq — to maintain support for the war.”5


Congress began working on a new bill and went into negotiations with the White House.  They proposed providing funding until the end of September with more than half of the funds not being released until after Bush issued a progress report in July.  Bush said he’d veto this.6  Then the House approved a 2-part bill that provided funding through July, but Bush again vowed to veto it, saying he didn’t want a bill that included conditions.  He later agreed to the idea of “benchmarks” and put his chief of staff, Joshua Bolten, to working with lawmakers to find “common ground.”7


Congress eventually gave in and gave Bush a "clear victory" by backing away from timelines.  They agreed to accept a Republican plan to establish 18 benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet.  The bill funded the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan until the end of September, the end of the federal fiscal year.  Bush was to send Congress a report on the Iraqis' progress in meeting the benchmarks by July 15th.8  Bush signed the bill immediately.


Bush’s preliminary report was released on July 12th.  Out of the 18 benchmarks that were set by Congress, 8 areas were rated as “satisfactory,” (“most of them related to military issues”); “insufficient improvement in 8 others, mainly related to political reconciliation;” and “mixed results in the final 2.”9   The New York Times said that the decision to rate the progress, instead of simply giving it a “pass/fail” grade, allowed the White House to paint a more positive picture of the situation in Iraq.10


The September Report


In late July, General David Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, prepared a detailed plan that looked at America’s role in Iraq through 2009.  “The detailed document, known as the Joint Campaign Plan, is an elaboration of the new strategy President Bush signaled in January when he decided to send five additional American combat brigades and other units to Iraq.  That signaled a shift from the previous strategy, which emphasized transferring to Iraqis the responsibility for safeguarding their security.”11  At this point it became clear that the September report would be compiled by Petraeus and Crocker. 


By early August the September report was expected to be pretty poor.  Iraq's Sunni political bloc withdrew from the government, “blaming Shiite Muslim leaders for not addressing sectarian issues.”  Six of the bloc's Cabinet members resigned.12  Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said he was “discouraged” by the resignation of the Sunnis and that “the Bush administration might have misjudged the difficulty of achieving reconciliation between Iraq’s sectarian factions.”13


In mid-August the White House said the September report would actually be written by the White House, “with inputs from officials throughout the government.”14  And the Bush administration proposed that the report would be delivered to Congress by the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.  General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker would be giving “private” briefings.  U.S. officials in Baghdad "appeared puzzled" when they heard of Bush's plan that Petraeus and Crocker would not testify publicly.  The “skirmishing is an indication of the rising anxiety on all sides,” but it appeared that the true "anxiety" was coming from the administration, which was understandable since all evidence pointed to the fact that the assessment wouldn’t report much progress on the all-important political benchmarks.15  Lawmakers balked and later Bush announced that Petraeus and Crocker would be allowed to testify – probably on September 11th.16


The National Intelligence Estimate


In mid-August a draft of the latest National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq was released.  It painted “a sobering picture of a mature civil war unlikely to be snuffed out through political progress, according to officials involved in the report’s preparation.”17  The declassified version of the NIE was released late in August.  It says, “civilian casualties remain high, sectarian groups can't get along, al Qaeda in Iraq is still pulling off high-profile attacks and ‘to date, Iraqi leaders remain unable to govern effectively.’ . . The report concluded that al-Maliki may not have the ability or capacity to ‘push forward’ legislative reforms . . .”  [NOTE: Legislative reforms usually refer to Production Sharing Agreements (PSAs), now called Exploration and Risk Contracts (ERCs).  See It's all About the Oil; see also, The Weekly Wonk, Production Sharing Agreements, 5/5/07 and The Weekly Wonk, Iraqi Oil Production, 7/7/07.]  The NIE also said that the security situation, the political system, and the economy are all “hindrances” to Iraq's progress and that improvements in these areas are “unlikely to emerge unless there is a fundamental shift in the factors driving Iraqi political and security developments.”  According to Bush administration officials, the classified version reiterates concerns that “insurgents” are planning an offensive like the Tet offensive in Vietnam.  The report also states that “the U.S. intelligence community predicts Iraqi security ‘will continue to improve modestly’ over the next year, ‘but that levels of insurgent and sectarian violence will remain high and the Iraqi government will continue to struggle to achieve national-level political reconciliation.’”  Interestingly, shortly after the declassified version was released, it came to light that General Petraeus, after looking at a draft, had the “security judgements softened to reflect improvements in recent months.”18  [Emphasis added.] 


General Accountability Office Report


On August 30th the Washington Post got ahold of a draft of the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) report that evaluates progress in Iraq.19  It claimed that only three of the 18 benchmarks set by Congress have been fully met. “Key legislation has not been passed, violence remains high, and it is unclear whether the Iraqi government will spend $10 billion in reconstruction funds,” the report concluded.  The GAO questioned some of the White House's conclusions and said that, in the future, the administration should take more views into consideration and back up its findings more extensively.  They also found that there really hasn't been a decrease in violence against Iraqis and that there has been a marked decrease in the number of Iraqi army units that can operate without assistance.  Even though the GAO's mandate was to provide a “yes” or “no” judgment on the benchmarks, it did say that two have been “partially met.”  A government official apparently gave the report to the Post fearing the “pessimistic conclusions would be watered down in the final version.”  (See Petraeus’ “softening” of the NIE report above.)  The White House and Pentagon were pretty upset about this report.  Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said they had “made some factual corrections” and “offered some suggestions on a few of the actual grades.”  He said, “We have provided the GAO with information which we believe will lead them to conclude that a few of the benchmark grades should be upgraded from ‘not met’ to ‘met.’”  The State Department said the report should have noted that at least some progress has been made.


On September 4th the final draft of the GAO report was released.  The final report differed little from the draft but it did upgrade two of the benchmarks from “not met” to “partially met.”  Pentagon officials still contend that at least two more categories should be given passing grades.20


The upshot of all these reports is that everyone can find something to support their views.  Are you in support of continuing the occupation in Iraq?  You’ll be able to find something to support this.  Do you believe we should withdraw or at least begin to deploy?  You can find something to support this, too.  All of this means that there is nothing “factual” that will assist Congress in any way.  They all just add more fuel to the fire.  And, to confuse the issue more, Bush is now proposing a new measure for “success” in Iraq by focusing on American alliances with tribes and local groups rather than the political benchmarks.  At one time the Bush administration called alliances such as these detrimental, saying they would “tear the country apart.”21




1  Hulse, Carl.  The Struggle for Iraq; Democrats Back Date for Start of Iraq Pullout.  The New York Times, April 24, 2007.


2  Retired Generals Endorse the Iraq Accountability Act.  The Gavel, April 24, 2007.


3  Watts, William L.  Bush Vetoes Troop-Withdrawal Bill.  Associated Press, May 1, 2007.


4  In 1999, then the Texas governor Bush said, regarding the Kosovo action, "Victory means exit strategy, and it’s important for the president to explain to us what the exit strategy is." (Houston Chronicle, preserved at ThinkProgress)  And later he said, "I think it’s also important for the president to lay out a timetable as to how long they will be involved and when they will be withdrawn." (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, preserved at ThinkProgress)


5  Article in Los Angeles Times no longer.  Excerpts preserved at Collins Watch.


6  Hulse, Carl.  The Reach of War; House Democrats May Seek Short-Term Financing of War.  The New York Times, May 8, 2007.


7  Hulse, Carl & Rutenberg, Jim.  The Reach of War; President Open to Benchmarks In Iraq Measure.  The New York Times, May 11, 2007.


8  Murray, Shailagh.  Democrats Relent on Pullout Timetable.  Washington Post, May 23, 2007.


9  DeYoung, Karen & Baker, Peter.  White House Gives Iraq Mixed Marks in Report.  Washington Post, July 12, 2007.


10 Cloud, David S. & Burns, John F.  Bush to Declare Progress in Iraq on Some Fronts.  The New York Times, July 12, 2007.


11 Gordon, Michael R.  U.S. Is Seen In Iraq Until At Least ’09.  The New York Times, July 23, 2007.


12 Parker, Ned.  Sunni Bloc Bolts Iraqi Cabinet.  Los Angeles Times, August 2, 2007.


13 Cloud, David S.  Gates Offers Blunt Review of Iraq Strategy’s Progress.  The New York Times, August 3, 2007.


14 Barnes, Julian E. & Spiegel, Peter.  Top General May Propose Pullbacks.  Los Angeles Times, August 15, 2007.


15 Weisman, Jonathan & DeYoung, Karen.  An Early Clash Over Iraq Report.  Washington Post, August 16, 2007.


16 White House:  Iraq Progress Report Could Be September 11.  Reuters, August 20, 2007.


17 Allen, Mike.  New Iraq Report to Warn of Attack.  The Politico, August 11, 2007.


18 DeYoung, Karen.  House to Hold Hearings on Two New Reports on Iraq.  Washington Post, August 28, 2007.


19 DeYoung, Karen & Ricks, Thomas E.  Report Finds Little Progress on Iraq Goals.  Washington Post, August 30, 2007.


20 Herszenhorn, David M. & Knowlton, Brian.  Independent Audit Finds Progress Lacking in Iraq.  The New York Times, September 4, 2007.


21 Sanger, David E.  Bush Shift Terms for Measuring Progress in Iraq.  The New York Times, September 5, 2007.


© The Issue Wonk, 2007

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