The case of the disappearing benchmarks

George W. Bush told us how to judge his "surge" in February. Has the White House just forgotten?

Published September 6, 2007 7:15PM (EDT)

How should we judge whether the "surge" is working? Should it matter that the Iraqi government isn't making the progress toward political reconciliation that the "surge" was supposed to make possible? Should it matter that the Iraqis haven't met a whole lot of the "benchmarks" both they and the Bush administration said they'd be meeting?

Here's an idea: Why don't we judge the success of the "surge" against the standard that George W. Bush himself set for it earlier this year?

At a Cabinet meeting on Feb. 5, 2007, the president explained: "What we're trying to do with this reinforcement of our troops is to provide enough space so that the Iraqi government can meet certain benchmarks or certain requirements for a unity government to survive and for the country to be strong. The success of that plan is going to depend upon the capacity and willingness of the Iraqis to do hard work, and we want to help them do that work."

That seems pretty simple to us. If the Iraqis were to do the "hard work" and "meet certain benchmarks," the "surge" would be a success. If they wouldn't or couldn't, then it would be a failure.

But for a lesson in setting goal posts when it's politically necessary and then moving them when the ball falls short, watch how the White House first embraced the idea of "benchmarks" as a test for the "surge" and then tore them down once it became clear that they wouldn't be met."

Previewing the "surge" on Jan. 10, 2007, a senior administration official said 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." The benchmarks the senior administration official mentioned were all ones that remain unmet today: "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."

In his weekly radio address on Jan. 13, 2007, the president himself said: "America will hold the Iraqi government to benchmarks it has announced. These include taking responsibility for security in all of Iraq's provinces by November, passing legislation to share oil revenues among all Iraqis, and spending $10 billion of its own money on reconstruction projects that will create new jobs. These are strong commitments. And the Iraqi government knows that it must meet them, or lose the support of the Iraqi and the American people."

Again, none of these benchmarks has been met. Does that matter? Counselor to the President Dan Bartlett said it would as he previewed Bush's State of the Union address on Jan. 23, 2007. Bartlett said the president would "make very clear that a key element of the new Iraq strategy requires an active and willing partner in the Iraqi government, that they have to take steps to achieve concrete benchmarks that everybody recognizes have to be achieved in order to get political progress on the ground."

On Feb. 2, 2007, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley reiterated that the benchmarks provided the standard against which the "surge" would have to be judged. "One of the advantages about the benchmarks that we have talked about and the president talked about is they are gauges for whether that strategy is succeeding, both narrowly, in terms of the Baghdad security plan, but also more broadly, because, as you know, some of those benchmarks involve the reconciliation effort," Hadley said. "So we are going to try and monitor the progress and our response is going to be, if we don't see progress, we're going to be talking to the Iraqis and emphasize the importance that we, and they take the steps that they need to do."

On Feb. 14, 2007, Bush said he was "paying close attention to whether or not the [Iraqi] government is meeting these benchmarks" and that he would "continue to remind Prime Minister [Nouri al-] Maliki that he must do so."

On March 8, 2007, Hadley reminded us all that "these benchmarks people keep talking about ... are largely Iraqi benchmarks that they have set for themselves and that the president has endorsed, because they are the key elements of a national reconciliation among the groups."

Observing the fourth anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom on March 19, 2007, the president said: "There's a lot more work to be done, and Iraq's leaders must continue to work to meet the benchmarks that [they] have set forward."

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, on March 28, 2007: "We believe in benchmarks, and we worked with the Iraqi government on benchmarks." The president, on May 10, 2007: "One message I have heard from people from both parties is that the idea of benchmarks makes sense. And I agree. It makes sense to have benchmarks as a part of our discussion on how to go forward." White House Press Secretary Tony Snow, on May 10, 2007: "Keep in mind, benchmarks also are not new. The president talked about them in [the] State of the Union. We talked about them in Amman in November. Secretary [Condi] Rice put a list of 17 together in a letter to Sen. [Carl] Levin. So you do need to have metrics." The president again, on May 17, 2007: "We understand that benchmarks are important."

Not too long after that -- as the Iraqi parliament prepared for its long summer break with virtually all of its work unfinished -- the White House backsliding began. Here's Snow on July 13, 2007: "If you simply look at benchmarks, you're going to miss a lot of the fine-print reporting ... that does give you a sense of a whole lot that's going on right now."

On Aug. 18, 2007, the president said that while "America will continue to urge Iraq's leaders to meet the benchmarks they have set" -- remember when America was going to "hold the Iraqi government to benchmarks it has announced"? -- we should all be "encouraged by the progress and reconciliation that are taking place at the local level." On Aug. 28, 2007, the president said it's "important to note that many of the goals behind these benchmarks are being achieved without legislation."

On Aug. 30, 2007, Snow told reporters it would be a "mistake to limit one's view of what goes on in Iraq to the benchmarks." Snow said the reports from ambassador Ryan Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus will present a view of Iraq "that's broader simply than the benchmarks," some of which he said are "not even appropriate right now." The "real question," Snow said, is "what's going on in Iraq?"

Right, but there was a time -- and it wasn't so long ago -- that the administration was insisting that the benchmarks would tell us "what's going on in Iraq," that they would be, in Hadley's words, the "gauges for whether [the president's] strategy is succeeding."

With the GAO reporting that Iraqis have met just three of the 18 benchmarks they set for themselves, those gauges have now all but disappeared.

Here's ambassador Crocker, talking to Katie Couric this week: "The legislative benchmarks are important, but I've been of the view, during most of the five months that I've been out here, that Iraq could achieve all of those legislative benchmarks and still not achieve national reconciliation. Conversely, you can get reconciliation without achieving the benchmarks. It's not, I think, a good litmus test for where this country is actually going."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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