Americans blundering back into work today, wiping away from their eyes the last of the summer BBQ smoke, might glance over their free issue of USA Today and, before bolting over to the story about Madonna using kabbalah to hypnotize A-Rod out of his marriage bed, will be fed a line about Iraq meeting 15 out of 18 established benchmarks for success.

This intriguing nugget is nestled in an even more empty report about the US being in a position to pull more troops – there are about 145,000 still there now – out of theater due to the improved security situation there. A purely speculative analysis (the only “independent” quote is from co-surge architect Ret. Gen. Jack Keane) with little new information, typical USA Today fare.

But in the case of the benchmarks, it is also a sneakily misleading report. Rewind to last Tuesday, when the White House announced a State Department report finding that Iraq received “satisfactory” marks on 15 out of 18 benchmarks. What does satisfactory really mean, and why doesn’t the report just say “met” if that’s what it meant? Apparently, we cannot read the report ourselves because news services were fed the “sensitive but unclassified” document and are not linking to it online. Not sure if this is the same one, but this State Department report seems quite tentative at best.

Meanwhile, the WaPo article on the subject mentions that the White House announcement last week “contrasts sharply” from other official assessments, particularly a GAO report released a week before finding gaps in political and military progress despite the decline in violence in Iraq.

And the AP points out some of the mixed messages in the whole “benchmarks” affair:

In the past 12 months, since the White House released its first formal assessment of Iraq’s military and political progress, Baghdad politicians have reached several new agreements seen as critical to easing sectarian tensions.

They have passed, for example, legislation that grants amnesty for some prisoners and allows former members of Saddam Hussein’s political party to recover lost jobs or pensions. They also determined that provincial elections would be held by Oct. 1.

But for every small step forward, Iraq has several more giant steps to take before victory can be declared on any one issue.

Amnesty requests are backlogged, and in question is whether the new law will speed the release of those in U.S. custody. It also remains unclear just how many former Baath members will be able to return to their jobs. And while Oct. 1 had been identified as an election day, Baghdad hasn’t been able to agree on the rules, possibly delaying the event by several weeks.

Likewise, militias and sectarian interests among Iraq’s leaders still play a central role in the conflict. And U.S. military officials say they are unsure violence levels will stay down as troop levels return to 142,000 after a major buildup last year.

I guess it would be considered “defeatist” to point out that the two “unsatisfactory” marks happen to be in two key areas of necessary stability and economic independence for Iraq: disbanding militias and fair distribution of oil revenues. It may also be pessimistic to point back to a June 29 AP story warning that our Sons of Iraq (the 80,000 US-paid Sunni militamen who have been fighting al Qaeda for us) may be heading for a disastrous showdown with the Shia-led Maliki government, which is already screwing them over on promises to integrate them into government jobs.
But Charles Krauthammer, ever the optimist, says the benchmarks, however satisfactorily met, aren’t even important, because victory is at hand.

But this obsession with the benchmarks is really quite remarkable. It’s a Democratic obsession which reflects an American obsession on legalism, parchment and paper, and laws.

Funny, I thought our “obsession” with parchment and paper, and laws, prevented the US from looking like Zimbabwe, or even Kabul right now. But it seems out allies the Shia Iraqis know all about our obsession with laws, parchment and paper – particularly security agreements – and they don’t want any of it. On the anniversary of the “parchment” that delivered America its independence, Iraqis were marching for their own:

Men, women and children took to streets of Baghdad’s Sadr City after the Friday prayers and shouted anti-American slogans protesting the security treaty also known as the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA).

“No, no to colonization! Out, out you occupier!” Iraqi protesters chanted in the centre of Sadr City.

Ah, the sweet smell of satisfactory success.