Grading on a curve in Iraq

Iraq may be stepping back from the brink of civil war, but it's a long way from where the administration once said it would be.

Published February 27, 2006 2:20PM (EST)

Pentagon auditors have declared potentially excessive or unjustified more than $250 million in charges Halliburton has made under a no-bid contract in Iraq. As the New York Times reports today, the Army is going to pay almost all of those charges anyway. A spokeswoman for the Army Corps of Engineers explains: "The contractor is not required to perform perfectly to be entitled to reimbursement."

It's a standard the Bush administration might like to apply to itself. Conditions improved in Iraq over the weekend as the country seemed to pull back from the brink of civil war. Sunnis are expressing a greater interest in returning to talks over the formation of a government, and the Associated Press says that -- except for the small matter of a mortar attack that killed four and wounded 16 -- Baghdad was "generally peaceful" Monday after four days of widespread violence.

But all this means is that Iraqis and the U.S. troops among them may be starting to get back to where they were before the bombing of the Askariya shrine in Samarra last week -- which is to say, a long way from where the administration predicted they'd be. Nearly 2,300 U.S. soldiers and maybe 10 times as many Iraqis have died in the war so far; insurgents appear free to attack almost at will; and basic services remain below preinvasion standards. The president says that U.S. troops will come home as Iraqi security forces stand up, but there seems to be reverse progress on that front. The administration used to boast that one Iraqi battalion was able to function without U.S. support; last week, it downgraded the ranking of even that battalion, meaning that there is currently not a single Iraqi battalion that the Pentagon deems capable of fighting on its own.

Fifty-five percent of the American public now believes that it was a mistake to go to war, and even some of the folks at Fox News have become openly critical of the president's stay-the-course strategy. Bill O'Reilly, who used to call advocates of a troop withdrawal "pinheads," said last week that it's time to get U.S. troops out of Iraq "as fast as humanly possible." And Fox News commentator and Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol said over the weekend that the United States has "not had a serious three-year effort to fight a war in Iraq as opposed to laying the preconditions for getting out."

Maybe "good enough for government work" works for Halliburton. But as the 2006 elections approach, the president and his party may be discovering that even Americans inclined to support them expect something more when lives are at stake.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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