When Benchmarks Measure Nothing


As Congress prepares for a new raft of votes on funding for Iraq, an unnamed White House official tells the Associated Press that President Bush will have to acknowledge shortly that progress in Iraq has failed to meet any of 18 benchmarks that Congress established earlier this year.

The administration was always loath to commit to a few simple, logical metrics (as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld liked to call them) that might concretely test the constant claims of a light at the end of the tunnel. Still, 0-for-18 is actually kind of surprising. One would think that if you had 18 different measures, a few of them would be headed in the right direction, at least enough for the most stubborn misperceivers to continue to claim an overall improvement.

But the bigger surprise is that the 18 benchmarks include none that directly measure the progress or regress of life in Iraq. It turns out that the only benchmarks Congress was willing to put into the bill measure laws and actions that the Iraqi government pledged to take. (A complete list of the benchmarks in contained in this May 28 piece by South Carolina congressman Bob Inglis, who was very excited at the time that “if the Iraq government does not make progress, they know that they could lose our help on some reconstruction projects.”

In case you don’t click through, the first few benchmarks are that the Iraqi government should form a constitutional review committee, set a date for regional elections, enact a new de-Baathification law, a law on oil and one on semi-autonomous regions. Well, you get the idea. It’s the belief that such laws will draw down the ethno-sectarian and regional grudges that are fueling the civil war.

But if you seriously wanted to know, after four years of war and occupation, whether life in Iraq is improving, wouldn’t you measure how many people are dying — U.S. military and Iraqi civilian both — how frequently the bombs are going off, whether the flood of refugees out of the country is slowing down, the curfew times are shrinking, the economy is adding jobs, the electricity is working most of the day, production of oil is up or down, stuff like that?

Apparently not.

The law setting up the benchmarks did not specify what consequences would follow if the Iraqi government failed to meet all — or any — of the goals. But it did require the president to report to the Congress and the nation by July 15 about progress toward the benchmarks.

NPR’s White House sources said in the coverage this a.m. that Bush will try to get ahead of the problem with a speech this week, urging patience and pointing out that it’s too soon to judge the progress of the “surge.” GOP U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota’s 6th District made that argument yesterday after returning from her first trip to Iraq (a trip in which, according to the St. Cloud Times, “security conditions in Iraq prevented Bachmann from meeting any Iraqis, leaving the Green Zone or staying in Iraq overnight.”

It’s fine for Bachmann to ask for more time before judging the surge. At least it’s not illogical. But if Bush uses the argument in talking about the missed benchmarks, there’s a bigger problem, the same one noted above. The benchmarks are things the U.S. troops cannot do. By what logic do we need more U.S. troops in Iraq longer before the Iraq Parliament can adopt an oil law? The give-the-surge-more-time argument is relevant only if the administration is willing to commit to being judged by some benchmarks that U.S. troops might actually be able to accomplish, the same security and economic benchmarks that would actually improve the situation for Iraqis.

No one follows those data more systematically than Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, head of the Iraq Index project. O’Hanlon is very reluctant to draw conclusions about the effect of the surge, but his data, as summarized in this June piece, seem much more honestly chosen to measure progress, and the results aren’t very pretty.

Finally, of Minnesota note, if you read to the bottom of the AP story that started this post, you’ll see that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee plans today to join the organizations running ads in Minnesota, targeting Sen. Norm Coleman on Iraq. It will be the third group to do so, but the first with an explicit connection to the Democratic Party.