THE RETURN OF BENCHMARKS….The indefatigable Michael O’Hanlon has taken to the op-ed pages once more to argue that we’re making serious progress in Iraq and should stay the course. Instead of counseling withdrawal, here’s what he thinks Democrats should do:

Democrats and other war critics should not be arguing for an unconditional and rushed departure, as the congressional leadership and Obama are generally doing.

….Iraqi leaders need to feel pressure to deliver. That is where a more conditional Democratic approach comes in. The United States stays only if Iraqis accelerate their own political efforts at reconciliation. This is admittedly a complex matter to evaluate accurately, but that is OK — Iraqis will get the message even if it is somewhat inexact and imprecise.

Democrats in Congress — including the two seeking the presidency and the leadership on Capitol Hill — should work for success in Iraq while reminding Iraqis that absent continued progress, the U.S. commitment could end, and soon. It is a message consistent with Democrats’ past views on the conflict, yet cognizant of the considerable gains there in the past year.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. This is the infamous “benchmark” approach to Iraq, an approach that Democrats spent several years pushing. And when they did, they ran into a brick wall from Republicans who labeled it defeatist, traitorous, cowardly, and naive.

So, two questions. First: Back when Democrats were trying to sell this idea as a way of getting out of Iraq, did O’Hanlon support it? Or does he only support it now, when it’s a way of staying in Iraq?

Second: What benchmarks does O’Hanlon support? Will Iraqis really get the message in the absence of absolutely clear metrics? Will O’Hanlon have the guts to support withdrawals if those metrics aren’t met? Will he commit to something firm right now and then stick to it, regardless of how things turn out?

I doubt it. And in a way, this isn’t really a criticism of O’Hanlon. As near as I can tell, the American public is still roughly in the same place it’s been since at least 2005: in favor of withdrawal within a year or two, but when that year or two is up, still in favor of withdrawal within a year or two. On that score, O’Hanlon is just the echo of a deeply conflicted public that doesn’t have the backbone to make hard decisions. If he didn’t exist, we’d have to invent him.

UPDATE: Ezra Klein provides some enlightening background.

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