Remember Those Iraqi Benchmarks? Well, Guess What...

Way back in the dark days of 2007, when the only popular question about the Iraq war concerned the degree of tragedy, Congress's Iraq "benchmarks" were all the rage among Democrats. Every argument against a continued U.S. presence in Iraq was constructed around the Maliki administration's apparent inability to meet the political and security-based milestones as outlined by America's Democratic-majority Congress.

Then something happened. The gains of the troop surge allowed the Iraqi government and citizenry to implement the security measures and legislative acts called for by the U.S. The benchmark line of argument quietly died. Here, then, is the brief life and glorious death of the great benchmark trope.

In mid-May 2007, Congress passed bill H.R. 2206, which included 18 benchmarks intended to gauge success in the security and political reconciliation of Iraq. Some of the benchmarks were broadly worded calls for beefed-up security, while others cited very specific goals. Benchmarks included, for example, "Enacting and implementing legislation addressing amnesty," "Providing three trained and ready Iraqi brigades to support Baghdad operations," and "Ensuring that the rights of minority political parties in the Iraqi legislature are protected." Continued aid for Iraq reconstruction was to be contingent upon the Iraqi government's ability to satisfactorily meet these benchmarks. President George W. Bush signed the bill into law on May 25, 2007.

In July 2007, the Bush administration issued an interim report that found satisfactory progress being made on eight of the 18 benchmarks, most of those having to do with security. The progress on eight other benchmarks was described as unsatisfactory, and the assessment of two more benchmarks was mixed. The New York Times quoted an anonymous White House official as saying, "It is a mixed bag, with some areas that are too early to pass judgment on."

It was becoming clear that the top-down nature of the benchmarks was not necessarily reflective of some of the decidedly bottom-up signs of progress in Iraq. Specifically, they failed to capture the opportunities that first arose in Anbar province, as Sunnis turned on al-Qaeda and something like viable statehood seemed to be in the offing. As Ambassador Ryan Crocker presciently noted at the time, meeting the specific benchmarks was less important than achieving the trickier and less easily quantifiable goal of keeping various Iraqi sectarian and ethnic blocs talking to one another.

Yet, the benchmarks stood and had to be addressed. With the troop surge in its infancy and the Democratic majority in Congress reluctant to acknowledge any progress in Iraq, the July report served as a hedged note of positivity until September, when Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus were scheduled to give a comprehensive Iraq report to Congress.