The next few weeks are among the most important yet in the war that began on 9/11/2001. Yes, I still believe it is a war; and I still believe it cannot be ducked or wished away. We have serious and deadly enemies, constellated in a newly dangerous and amorphous entity. Mere reactive police action is not enough; but, equally, ideological grandstanding is no alternative to cold, strategic assessment, which may indeed mean a careful withdrawal from the quicksand of Iraq. Readers know where I've been coming from for a while, and I hope to spend considerable time in the new year (for me, it still starts in September) making sense of any and all new data we get from Iraq, especially from Petraeus and Crocker.

But a simple, initial point. War is dynamic; the arguments of six months ago may not apply very well to the next six months. Paying close attention to evolving events on the ground is key, as is grasping the immense complexity of the region we now appear to be indefinitely occupying. Equally, seeing only the current situation and failing to take in the long view can lead to fatal errors as well. In that respect, the Congress and the American people have every right to remember the criteria the administration itself laid out for judging the success of the "surge" back in January and holding them to it. Mere trust is no longer an option. Here's what the Bushies said last January:

We have made very clear that the Iraqi government needs to meet the benchmarks it has set in order to do the things on which a broader reconciliation are required. And you all know them. They're the oil law; they're de-Baathification, narrowing the limitations of the de-Baathification law; they're provincial elections to bring the Sunnis back into the political process at the local level. There is also continuing, and we would hope even accelerating the transition of security responsibility to Iraqis elsewhere in the country and in Baghdad, because if this works it will actually enable Iraqis sooner to provide security in Baghdad. And we have -- would like, and the Iraqis have made clear that one of their benchmarks is to take responsibility for security in the whole country by the end of the year. (...)

They have set forward this plan. They have brought forward these benchmarks. And what the President is saying is, fine, we will judge you now less on your words and more on your performance."

If these benchmarks are now to be abandoned or downgraded as the basis on which to judge the surge, then the president needs to be candid that he has changed his criteria. There may be an argument there, but it needs to be on the table. None of the current p.r. blitz can disguise the fact that the surge has indeed failed on the terms that the president initially laid out at the beginning of the year. There has been no political progress at the center, and that was the declared goal of the new gambit. If the surge has succeeded in other ways, fine. Let's figure out what the consequences of that might be. But no more flim-flam and distraction, please. It's not an easy decision: to squat on the wreckage of four years of failed occupation or to extricate ourselves from it and face unknown consequences. This awful choice is a function of the commander-in-chief we've got. We cannot and must not delegate the decision to him.

(Photo: US 'surge' troops from 1-30 Infantry Battalion conduct a foot patrol along the Tigris river south of Baghdad, 03 September 2007. By David Furst/Getty.)