When a benchmark isn't a benchmark

Administration official says troop escalation isn't conditioned on Iraqi actions.

By Tim Grieve
Published January 10, 2007 8:38PM (EST)

An unidentified "senior administration official" briefed the White House press corps this afternoon on what's new -- aside from 20,000 more troops -- in George W. Bush's plan for Iraq. The answer will be familiar to anyone who has listened to a friend offer up the same New Year's resolution year after year after year: Nouri al-Maliki says he's ready to take the steps to ensure his country's security, and this time, he really means it.

"I'm not saying ... that everything under the sun here is new," the senior administration official said. "My premise is, as everyone says, there's no silver bullet, there's no magic plan out there. We've all known that in order to solve the problem in Iraq, you've got to do something about security, you've got to do something about the politics, you've got to do something about economics. Sure, benchmarks have been around. What I think is different is a new seriousness by the Iraqis and the United States that they need to be met."

How about some consequences if they're not? The senior administration official made it pretty clear that Bush won't go so far as describing any. Asked whether Bush plans to tell the Maliki government that "unless X happens," he won't send more U.S. troops, the official said: "No, he won't say that, and part of it is because when you're trying to empower a government, you don't talk to them in those terms -- 'You must do this, or else.' This is a government we're trying to strengthen, and trying -- and basically to make clear that they are doing this for their own reasons."

So will the president's speech at least put Maliki "on notice"? "I think it makes it -- calls it like it is, which is that they have a plan, they have good statements, it's time to perform," the official said. "And that's the message he's getting from his own people, that's the message he's getting from the president, and that's the message that he's getting from the American people."

One might say that it's also the message that Bush should have gotten from the American people. We're seeing now how that sort of thing works out.

Tim Grieve

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

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