Following two days of carefully staged theatrics on Capitol Hill and cable television, the essential facts about Iraq remain unchanged. Despite the big charts and the blustering fanfare highlighted by Fox News, neither Gen. David H. Petraeus nor Ambassador Ryan Crocker could convincingly claim that the American military escalation in Iraq is achieving its original goals.

Having assured us last spring that we would learn by September whether the so-called “surge” is a success according to those benchmarks, the general and the diplomat now ask us to disregard the original measures, look elsewhere for wisps of hope, and give the Bush plan still another six months.

By then, of course, there will not be enough troops available to continue the escalation. While Petraeus sought to portray the eventual withdrawal of several brigades as the result of “success,” the truth is that the Army, Marines and National Guard will soon reach the breaking point.

Meanwhile, our soldiers and Marines remain mired in a slow-moving civil war whose casualties can be measured not only in the dead and wounded but in the dispossessed, by the hundreds of thousands. Where the Pentagon claims that measurable violence has diminished, especially in Baghdad, the underlying reason is often that either Shia or Sunni families have been forced to flee by death squads or militias.

Rather than confront the dismal facts on the ground, both Petraeus and Crocker predictably emphasized a more uplifting assessment from recent developments in Anbar Province. The ambassador had no choice but to confess his deep “frustration” over the Iraqi government’s daily failures, yet professed to find hope in the Anbar experience and the Iraqi government’s response.

American commanders have exploited a rupture between Anbar’s local Sunni tribal leaders and their former friends from al-Qaida in Mesopotamia. During the past few years, the insurgent sheiks have become increasingly disillusioned with the jihadis, many of whom are foreigners, over their proclivity for carrying off young women for forced marriages, killing young men who display insufficient zeal for Islamist extremism, and generally becoming a lethal nuisance.

As long ago as last January, during his Senate confirmation hearings, Petraeus first noted that the tribal leaders had shifted their allegiance against al-Qaida. At the time he said, “Right now there appears to be a trend in the positive direction where sheiks are stepping up and they do want to be affiliated with and supported by the U.S. Marines and Army forces who are in Anbar Province.” Open warfare between the jihadists and the sheiks happily coincided with the arrival of additional U.S. forces in Iraq over the following months. The general cleverly dispatched 4,000 of those troops to Anbar, and proceeded to take credit for a trend he knew was already under way.

Crocker’s role in the political exploitation of that coincidence was to cajole the Shia-dominated central government in Baghdad into pretending to be delighted with the new alliance between the Sunni sheiks and the U.S. Army. The honest response of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his ministers to this development was closer to pure horror, and a threat to transfer his own party’s loyalties even more firmly to Iran.

Regardless of these unsettling nuances, Crocker made the very most of the Anbar situation in his House testimony on Monday. Confessing that he didn’t expect the Baghdad government to fulfill the benchmarks set forth last winter as the reasons for the surge, he swiftly turned to those hopeful glimmers from west of the capital.

“I frankly do not expect that we are going to see rapid progress through these benchmarks,” admitted the ambassador. “It is important to remind ourselves that the benchmarks are not an end to themselves; they are a means to national reconciliation. And I think it is very important that we maintain a sense of tactical flexibility and encourage the Iraqis to do the same, to seize opportunities to advance national reconciliation when they arise, as we have seen in Anbar and as we have seen in the government’s response to Anbar, through distributing additional budget resources to this province and bringing in its young men into security forces. So while I would certainly share disappointment that progress has been slow on legislative benchmarks, that, to my mind, does not mean there has been no progress toward reconciliation. There has been.”

In other words, we must forget about all the agreed benchmarks, gaze instead upon a contrived tableau of reconciliation in a single province, and pretend to see progress.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer.

© 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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