No matter who is elected president in November, his foreign policy team will have to deal with one of the most frustrating realities in Iraq: the slow pace at which the government in Baghdad operates.
Iraq's political and military success is considered vital to U.S. interests, whether troops stay or go. And while the Iraqi government has made measurable progress in recent months, the rate at which it's done so has been achingly slow.
The White House sees the progress in a particularly positive light, declaring in a new assessment to Congress that Iraq's efforts on 15 of 18 benchmarks are "satisfactory" — almost twice what it determined to be the case a year ago. The May 2008 report card, obtained by the Associated Press, determines that only two of the benchmarks — enacting and implementing laws to disarm militias and distribute oil revenues — are unsatisfactory.
Easing sectarian issues
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.
In the May progress report, one benchmark was deemed to have brought mixed results. The Iraqi army has made satisfactory progress on the goal of fairly enforcing the law, while the nation's police force remains plagued by sectarianism, according to the administration assessment.
Overall, militia control has declined and Baghdad's security forces have "demonstrated its willingness and effectiveness to use these authorities to pursue extremists in all provinces, regardless of population or extremist demographics," as illustrated by recent operations, the White House concludes.
Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., who requested the administration's updated assessment, scoffed at the May report, which he says uses the false standard of determining whether progress on a goal is "satisfactory" versus whether the benchmark has been met. He estimates that only a few of the 18 benchmarks have been fully achieved.
More progress could have been made
Democrats also say more solid progress could have been made had the administration starting pulling troops out sooner.
"We've tried repeatedly to get the administration to shift responsibility to the Iraqi leaders for their own future, since there is broad consensus that there is no military solution and only a political settlement among the Iraqis can end the conflict," said Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"The administration, however, has repeatedly missed opportunities to shift this burden to the Iraqis and appears willing to do so again," Levin said.
But whether the next president will be much more successful in forcing the Iraqi government to reach a lasting political settlement remains to be seen.
Whether the new administration starts pulling troops out of Iraq right away, as Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama has promised, or refuses to set a timetable, per Republican John McCain's suggestion, most agree that a functional democracy in Iraq could still be years away because of the complexities of the issues involved and the deeply rooted distrust among the nation's sectarian groups.
"Iraq has the potential to develop into a stable, secure multiethnic, multi-sectarian democracy under the rule of law," Ryan Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Iraq said in April when he last testified before Congress. "Whether it realizes that potential is ultimately up to the Iraqi people."