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Defining ‘Benchmarks’ in Iraq

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
May 15, 2007


In President Bush’s January 2007 speech outlining his latest strategy for Iraq, he listed a series of benchmarks on security, economic performance, and governance for the Iraqi government to meet. They include passing an oil revenue-sharing bill, reversing the draconian de-Baathification laws his administration previously forced on Iraq, and holding new provincial elections. He also demanded progress in the spending of billions of dollars in reconstruction money and revisions to the constitutional amendment process. “America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced,” Bush proclaimed.

As a battle over congressional funding for the war overtakes Washington, the question of benchmarks has arisen again. The White House had previously resisted linking Iraq’s performance on meeting its benchmarks with the funding of U.S. troops. Now, lawmakers eagerly anticipate the end of summer when Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker are expected to give an assessment of the so-called surge and whether Iraqis have achieved the benchmarks.

But as this Backgrounder notes, the question that looms over the benchmarks debate is: How does one define progress? Many of the benchmarks are vague because the metrics to measure them are imprecise. As Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) told the New York Times, “Imagine building a house without a ruler.” Military officials also hold different interpretations of what benchmarks mean. Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whittles it down to one question: Are Iraqis better off? (CSMonitor). As CFR’s Max Boot writes in the Wall Street Journal, Petraeus is unlikely to offer a definitive answer and say “the surge has worked” or “the surge has failed,” but rather will “point to a variety of indicators, some of which will be positive, others negative.”

There is general agreement that the aim of the surge is to buy time in Baghdad for a power-sharing agreement to be reached and to avert a collapse of government. It’s become almost cliché to say that only a political not a military solution can solve Iraq’s woes, but experts seem to agree the proper security environment must be established to allow national reconciliation to take place. “How many bombings, how many deaths, how many U.S. casualties, how many incidents—all those things could go up, down or sideways, and it has very little connection with the underlying political negotiations that are the real route to success,” said CFR’s Stephen Biddle in a recent press briefing. Political reconciliation, as Petreaus recently told the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, is “the long pole in the tent.” But there is growing impatience among some Democratic lawmakers, not to mention resistance from Iraqi leaders, to meet the timetables on benchmarks. “We have two clocks—the Baghdad clock and the Washington clock,” Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish Iraqi lawmaker told the Los Angeles Times, “and this is a perfect example.”   

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