Democrats in Congress are scrambling to move the goalposts before General David Petraeus reports on the situation in Iraq. Democrats used to argue that we should withdraw because we couldn't win militarily.
"I believe that this war is lost, and this surge is not accomplishing anything," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told journalists in April.
Now that it is plain even to most of the Democratic members of Congress who have visited Iraq recently that we are winning militarily, it's time to change the game.
Okay, so we're winning militarily, but we should get out of Iraq anyway because not enough political progress is being made, the current Democratic line goes.
The goalpost moving began in earnest Tuesday with a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the recent report by the Government Accountability Office that the government of Iraq has failed to meet 13 of 18 "benchmarks" of progress toward political reconciliation.
The GAO report was designed to find failure. The Iraqi government was judged only on whether or not a particular benchmark has been met, not whether progress has been made toward the goal. A Department of Defense analysis in July found the Iraqi government was making "satisfactory" progress on eight benchmarks; "unsatisfactory" progress on six others, with two being mixed and two others too early to judge.
There are few criticisms of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki with which I don't agree. He has been weak, more interested in pursuing sectarian goals than national reconciliation, and too friendly to Iran.
"Mr. Maliki is the elected leader of Iraq," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. "He has an opportunity to amend the consitutiton, to relieve the civil strife, and therefore the violence. No initiatives have been taken."
Ms. Pelosi has things backwards. Political reconciliation follows battlefield success. It doesn't precede it and can't substitute for it.
And it's a bit cheeky of Ms. Pelosi to criticize Mr. Maliki's government so harshly, since she was partly responsible for his election.
In his column Aug. 30, David Ignatius of the Washington Post recounted how Iranian meddling overwhelmed moderate Shia in the Iraqi parliamentary election in January, 2005:
"By one CIA estimate, Iranian covert funding was running $11 million a week for media and political operations on behalf of candidates who would be friendly to Iran," Mr. Ignatius wrote. "As many as 5,000 Iranians a week were crossing the border with counterfeit ration cards to register to vote in Iraq's southern provinces."
The CIA proposed a political action program to counter Iranian meddling. The president approved it and senior leaders in Congress were briefed on it. Ms. Pelosi objected.
"A week after the finding was signed, CIA officials were told it had been withdrawn," Mr. Ignatius wrote. "Mystified by this turn of events, CIA offers were told that (Secretary of State Condoleeza) Rice had agreed with Pelosi that the United States couldn't on the one hand celebrate Iraqi democracy and on the other try to manipulate it secretly." "It looked like we were giving the country to Iran," a U.S. official told Mr. Ignatius. "We told Washington this was a calamitous event, from which it would be hard to recover."
Most of the blame for this calamity must fall upon President Bush and his quietly terrible secretary of state, but Ms. Pelosi deserves her share of calumny.
Mr. Ignatius thinks it may be too late to fix this blunder. But it may not be.
President Bush's Labor Day visit to Anbar province, where he met with Sunni tribal leaders once allied with Al Qaeda who now are fighting it, illustrated that political reconciliation can be built from the bottom up.
Before they climb out further onto their current limb, Democrats should pay heed to an AP dispatch from Helsinki, Finland Monday.
"Representatives from Sunni and Shiite groups in Iraq agreed on a road map to peace that ended Monday," the AP said. The talks were moderated by veterans of the negotiations that led to a peace settlement in Northern Ireland in 1998.
The Iraqi parliament also reconvened Tuesday. On its agenda are bills to share oil revenues, and to permit former members of the Baath party who have no criminal records to get government jobs. If either passes, it will be hard to argue that political progress isn't being made.
It may be time for a strategic withdrawal. Not from Iraq, but from Democratic efforts to force withdrawal from Iraq.