Friday, August 31, 2007

The meaning of "progress"

The Washington Post reports that a leaked GAO draft indicates that only 3 of the 18 Iraq benchmarks have been met. Strange considering that just a few weeks ago the White House reported that "satisfactory progress" had been made on 8. You might think that "satisfactory" should be read as "will reach stated goal by time specified" -- but you'd be wrong. Like most claims of the progress in Iraq, the progress reported by the White House was not progress at all.

In his withering report "Benchmarks In Iraq: The True Status", issued soon after the White House progress claims, Anthony Cordesman wrote:

It is clear, however, that the Iraqi government has not really met the Bush administration’s benchmarks in any major area. Seen from a more nuanced perspective, actual progress as has been more limited and had often had tenuous meaning unless it can eventually be shown that a faltering legislative start will be put into practice over the months and years to come in ways that Iraq’s major factions will accept.

We've been hearing about progress in Iraq for years. Here's a good one from 2003: "WMD hunters tout progress in Iraq". Here's one about the incredible progress we made in Mosul in 2005 -- and then again in 2007.

Iraq's northern city Mosul, in Ninewa province, is a sprawling tangle of historic neighborhoods that straddle the Tigris river. With a mixed population of Sunni Arabs, Kurds and other minority groups, Iraq's third largest city is typical of many Iraqi towns that have see-sawed between periods of violence and relative calm since the U.S.-led invasion.

Is riding on a see-saw progress? It is if you describe it as "going up. Now going up again. And again, going up..."

Progress in Iraq comes in many forms:

  1. Purely anecdotal progress that is not in any way measurable.
  2. "Localized progress" that is not reflective of any larger trends.
  3. Progress that occurs immediately following a regression. One step back, one step forward again.
  4. Progress that is offset by equal regression in some other area.

At any given time in Iraq there is progress happening somewhere. Journalists go on a military-guided tour of Iraq and report that some dangerous areas are safer; progress even though formerly safer areas are more dangerous. A drop in civilian casualties is evidence of progress even as military casualties rise -- or vice-versa. Military security increases while the political situation regresses due to those security measures -- that's progress as well.

The 18 benchmarks represent an objective way of measuring total progress by defining in advance what progress looks like. Instead of retroactively picking out fleeting examples -- yesterday a swimming pool cleaned, the day before a number of insurgents killed -- the benchmarks establish goals and measures in advance. The President said in January:

A successful strategy for Iraq goes beyond military operations. Ordinary Iraqi citizens must see that military operations are accompanied by visible improvements in their neighborhoods and communities. So America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced.

To establish its authority, the Iraqi government plans to take responsibility for security in all of Iraq's provinces by November. To give every Iraqi citizen a stake in the country's economy, Iraq will pass legislation to share oil revenues among all Iraqis. To show that it is committed to delivering a better life, the Iraqi government will spend $10 billion of its own money on reconstruction and infrastructure projects that will create new jobs. To empower local leaders, Iraqis plan to hold provincial elections later this year. And to allow more Iraqis to re-enter their nation's political life, the government will reform de-Baathification laws, and establish a fair process for considering amendments to Iraq's constitution.

Many of these benchmarks are easy to measure. De-Baathification laws have not been passed. Oil-sharing legislation has not been passed. The Bush Administration has touted as good news that Iraqi leaders have pledged to pass these laws -- just as they have pledged in the past without result. (It should be noted that merely passing the legislation is meaningless if it can't be enforced by a government with no power outside of Baghdad.)

Predictably the Administration is distancing itself from the benchmarks and embracing empty claims of "progress" and cherry-picked examples. Tony Snow at a press briefing:

Again, I would -- if you take a look at what Congress has mandated for this report, it says, have you met these? Have you met them in full? Well, the answer is, you're going to find in a lot of cases, of course they haven't met them. Now, the real question is, do you have progress in the right direction?
The real question that people have is, what's going on Iraq? Are we making progress? Militarily, is the surge having an impact? The answer is yes. There's no question about it. What you've had is the number of ethnic and religious sectarian killings down by 75 percent. You have a doubling of weapons cache seizures. You have a reduction in bombing violence, in bombing killings of U.S. and coalition forces. There have been a number of -- you have kills and captures way up when it comes to those who have been fighting against the government.

Weapons cache seizures. Bombing violence. Kills and captures. These are the progress metrics of today. When weapons cache seizures decline that metric will be replaced with a more convenient one. Perhaps tomorrow seizures will be down but electricity availability will be up, and that will be touted as the latest evidence of progress.

For years we've let the Bush Administration get away with refusing to define the exact end goal or what the path to it looks like. Without an ideal path, let alone a realistic one, progress is impossible to measure. If you don't know where you're going or how your getting there "are we getting closer?" is a meaningless question.

The President said "I've made it clear to the Prime Minister and Iraq's other leaders that America's commitment is not open-ended." Nothing could be further from the truth. Our commitment is by definition open-ended: no endpoint has ever been articulated. Under the Bush Administration we're staying as long as it takes -- whatever "it" is, something that has never been elucidated.

Measurable benchmarks only matter when a failure to meet them is actionable, and this Congress does not have the political will to take action. There will be some debate over how many are met, but the reality is that meeting all eighteen or none makes no difference; the report itself is busy work, as is the much-heralded "Petraeus report." Nobody familiar with Bush or Congress can expect these reports to alter our policies in the slightest, regardless of content. There is no benchmark or Petraeus report even conceivable that would lend Congress the political fortitude to press action through legislation. Bush claims that our commitment to Iraq is not open-ended when clearly it is. In the same way, for all their protestations, the Congress' commitment to Bush's war is equally open-ended. The reports of progress and the promise of tomorrow will continue, as they have continuously since the invasion began.

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