Ronald Reagan used to tell the story of a boy so optimistic that when he woke up on Christmas morning and was confronted with a huge mound of manure, he gleefully began shoveling. "There's a pony in here someplace," he exclaimed.
For President Bush, when it comes to Iraq, every day is Christmas Day. He has been shoveling for more than four years but still fully expects that pony to pop out at any moment. On Capitol Hill, though, even Republicans are starting to suspect that the malodorous pile is that and nothing more.
On Thursday, the White House released its latest assessment of the war, and it concluded that on eight of the 18 benchmarks set by Congress, there has been "satisfactory progress." That was enough for a presidential seal of approval. In other words, getting right answers on less than half the exam questions earns a pass. If the standards for No Child Left Behind were that low, we would be descending toward mass illiteracy.
The report trumpeted improvement in some areas, such as reducing sectarian violence and moving toward constitutional revision, while admitting many plans are not going so well — such as disarming militias, getting Iraqi forces to fight on their own, and coming up with a fair way to divide the country's oil revenue.
In truth, the progress cited in the report is modest and in dispute, even among people in the administration. The failures, on the other hand, are universally acknowledged and of critical importance. The only realistic way to interpret the overall outlook is grim, with no prospect of improvement.
The White House says bloodshed is on the wane. But last week, Thomas Fingar, head of the government's own National Intelligence Council, testified on Capitol Hill that it has "not yet been reduced significantly." Only last month, the Pentagon issued its own report admitting the violence has not subsided but merely "shifted location."
Certainly Iraq is not getting discernibly safer for the U.S. military. More American troops died in the last three months than in any quarter since the 2003 invasion. Despite the surge, attacks by the enemy has been running at a near-record level. Sunni insurgents are still fully capable of wreaking havoc, like the truck bomb July 7 that killed more than 100 people in Kirkuk.
The Iraq Index is compiled regularly by Brookings Institution defense analyst Michael O'Hanlon, who endorsed the president's surge strategy when it was announced. But its latest edition concludes the bad news outweighs the good.
Ethnic cleansing, it notes, continues apace, car bombings are still common, the economy is a wreck and, "perhaps worst of all, the Iraqi political system fails to deliver any real progress on the core issues dividing Sunni from Shia from Kurd." As for the Iraqi police, a Pentagon official told The Washington Post recently that "half of them are part of the problem, not the solution."
Curtailing slaughter is not just a goal in itself but a means to a greater end — namely, political reconciliation that would provide Iraq with a stable government commanding the allegiance of all groups and regions. In that respect, any alleged successes on the military front have not led to progress in the political sphere.
The Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds are supposed to be working out their differences, but the main Sunni party has been boycotting the Cabinet and parliament. One of the benchmarks the administration says has been met is the formation of a Constitutional Review Committee. But the committee is way past the deadline to finish its work. An oil law looks like it is being timed to coincide with the next appearance of Halley's Comet.
By now, we should all know the president is determined to portray Iraq as a success in the making no matter how much it looks like a failure. He said Thursday the results of the surge so far are "cause for optimism." But in September 2004, he was "pleased with the progress." In January 2005, he said, "I'm optimistic about it." A year later, he said "we are winning." The president's mood is always good and always wrong.
He wants Congress to be patient and wait until September, when the next progress report is due. At that point, if things go as he expects, he'll be riding at the front of a victory parade, on his brand new pony.
Steve Chapman is a nationally syndicated columnist.