Gen. David Petraeus won't be giving Congress his progress report on Iraq until next month, but the outcome is practically a fait accompli.
According to sources, the White House and the Pentagon have made a concerted effort to send a carefully constructed message on Iraq: The fight is tough, but the troop surge is making progress.
The point of this message is to pre-empt any serious political opposition to the idea of extending the troop surge, which the White House and the Pentagon hope to maintain through next spring.
The approach has also taken some of the pressure off of Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, by giving Congress a "sneak peek" at what he's expected to say.
At a July news conference, President Bush said, "Our new strategy is delivering good results, and our commanders recently reported more good news."
Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, told Pentagon reporters last week, "Security across Iraq is generally improving. Iraqis are feeling it, and they feel a sense the tide is turning."
Winning Allies in Call to Give Surge More Time
Petraeus himself has pointed to a one-year low in attacks on U.S. forces as an example of how the surge is working.
Late last month, the general identified a select group of influential writers and analysts and invited them to tour Iraq for eight days. Michael O'Hanlon, a respected military analyst with the center-left Brookings Institute, was among them.
O'Hanlon and the rest of the group were briefed by top military and political officials. They were also given access to classified information.
O'Hanlon came back from his trip and penned an article with another colleague, Ken Pollack, for The New York Times. The article cited security progress in Iraq and called on Congress to back an extension of the troop surge.
"There's so much positive momentum on the battlefield that it makes sense not to give up while we are starting to make progress," O'Hanlon says.
Conservatives immediately embraced the article.
The White House distributed the piece via e-mail under the heading "a potentially climate-changing article."
The week that the article appeared, it was cited in four separate stories by the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard; the publication referred to O'Hanlon and Pollack as "left-wing critics of the war." That's not entirely accurate. Both O'Hanlon and Pollack backed the invasion of Iraq and backed the troop surge. They have criticized the way the administration has handled the war, but it barely differs from the criticism served up by The Weekly Standard.
Still, O'Hanlon and Pollack's point of view seems to be catching on more broadly. Recent polls suggest the number of Americans willing to see the troop surge extend through next April is growing.
And according to one source close to the general's staff, "Petraeus doesn't have to sell Congress on an extension. ... He's already sealed the deal."
Whose Conclusions Will They Be?
Meanwhile, the White House has indicated that it will write the report which Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker deliver to Congress — even though, just a few weeks ago, the president had suggested that he himself was awaiting its conclusions.
"I'm going to wait to see what David [Petraeus] has to say," President Bush said earlier in August. "I'm not going to prejudge what he may say. I trust David Petraeus' judgment."
Paul Hughes, a retired Army colonel now at the U.S. Institute of Peace, argues that a report penned by the White House will only undermine its credibility.
"For them to be writing this report is going to diminish whatever ground truth that Gen. Petraeus or Ambassador Crocker have put into the reports," he says.
The report is expected to be delivered behind closed doors. The public won't be able to see it until three days later.