What if Iraq Doesn't Meet the Benchmarks?

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It always happens this way in Washington: A policy gets hatched, it fails, then the leaders look for the best way to fix it. And that kind of change can be a good thing.

In the case of the Iraq war, it would be a very good thing. So all eyes will be on President Bush on Wednesday night as he calls for a new policy in Iraq. So far, that seems to include a troop surge of about 20,000, accompanied by domestic aid–and a set of benchmarks that must be met by the Iraqi government.

So is that enough? It's not really clear. I spoke with Leon Panetta, who was a member of the Iraq Study Group, and he's interested in finding an answer to this question: If there are benchmarks, what's the price for not meeting them? Is it troop withdrawal? That's the key question.

In the past, Panetta reminds us, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has made promises that have not been kept. Promises such as policing Sunni neighborhoods and gaining command of Iraq's 10 Army divisions. And the administration itself clearly has concerns and questions about Maliki–but he's the only horse the White House has right now. And he's the one the administration has to trust–like it or not.

So it's a "riverboat gamble," as Howard Baker used to say. And the president needs to walk a fine line, without making it appear as if he believes he has made some very big mistakes. It's hard, maybe even impossible. Stay tuned.