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.

However, soon after the enthusiastic Bush report came out, the Government Accountability Office released a contradictory report of its own. The GAO sent an assessment to Congress claiming only three of the 18 benchmarks had been met. The report stated:

While the Baghdad security plan was intended to reduce sectarian violence, U.S. agencies differ on whether such violence has been reduced. ... The capabilities of Iraqi security forces have not improved. ... Overall, key legislation has not been passed, violence remains high, and it is unclear whether the Iraqi government will spend $10 billion in reconstruction funds.

The Democrats pounced. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi released an official statement on the GAO report, in which she stated:

The president is demanding tens of billions more dollars for the war in Iraq despite non-partisan conclusions, such as the draft GAO report and the recent National Intelligence Estimate, that the Iraqi government has failed to achieve required reforms.

As in the past, President Bush stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the facts on the ground about the sectarian civil war in Iraq or the growing bipartisan opposition to his failed policies. He insists that our soldiers sacrifice even more, and taxpayers spend billions more dollars for an Iraqi government incapable or unwilling to institute reforms required by the president himself.

When Ryan Crocker and Gen. Petraeus testified on Iraq's political and military progress, respectively, both were cautious and circumspect. Democrats who were eager to poke holes in a triumphal mischaracterization of the situation on the ground were flummoxed. Gen. Petraeus discussed the gains of the surge in reducing sectarian violence, but readily ceded that progress was uneven, fragile, and slow. Crocker admitted that political progress was happening at a frustrating pace but argued that "a secure, stable democratic Iraq at peace with its neighbors is attainable."

Petraeus defanged anti-war Democrats by calling for a troop drawdown starting mid-2008. Because Petraeus had realized that benchmarks weren't the most useful metric and because he recognized a trickier kind of progress underway in Iraq, he had no need to fudge things. Moreover, he's an honorable and gifted military mind who understood that the surge, as implemented, would either continue to yield progress or it would not.

If the Dems could no longer bite, they could certainly still bark. In the wake of the September testimony, anti-war lawmakers and media outlets refused to let up on the benchmark mantra. For them, victory or defeat in Iraq hung on those 18 points. Party big shots like Harry Reid and Joe Biden publicly cited the failure to meet the benchmarks as evidence that Iraq was hopeless. House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn issued a statement saying: "Despite the clear evidence that the Iraqi government has failed to make the necessary political progress and deliver on 15 of 18 benchmarks outlined by the Bush administration, the president wants to establish a permanent presence or ‘enduring relationship' in Iraq, continuing to sacrifice an unacceptable level of American blood and treasure."

Well, if the benchmarks were all-important to Democrats in the fall of 2007, they have become meaningless to them in 2008. When is the last time you've heard a benchmark reckoning from Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi? The reason for the deafening silence on this matter is simple. The military and political progress in Iraq has proved so monumental that the majority of the benchmarks have now been met.

Seven of the 18 benchmarks relate to Iraq's national security. We can just about put a check next to each one. We can even look at some of those and marvel at the low expectations behind them. Number 9, for example: "Providing three trained and ready Iraqi brigades to support Baghdad operations." There are far more than three battle-ready brigades in Baghdad. The galvanization of Sunni Awakening groups who have wrested their country back from al-Qaeda and the decisive efforts of Iraqi forces in Basra and Sadr City have been the two most vital developments of the entire post-Saddam period.

The other eleven benchmarks are the political ones. And these are not so easily sniffed at. However, with Iraq's parliament passing three critical laws in February and the Maliki government's surprising tenacity, the four most challenging of these benchmarks have been met: a plan for provincial governance, de-Baathification reform, an amnesty for former insurgents, and legislation on the procedures to form semiautonomous regions.

Of the remaining benchmarks, some were always too ill-defined to be worthwhile. (Consider 18, for example: "Ensuring that Iraq's political authorities are not undermining or making false accusations against members of the Iraqi Security Forces." Can we even say with confidence that America's political authorities are not making false accusations against our own armed forces?) Others are also subjective, but admittedly important -- equality under the law being one. And on these there is continued and demonstrable progress.

Robbed of benchmark-rage, the Democrats have been floundering in their search for a substantive argument against the evident progress in present-day Iraq. Hoisted by their own petard, the anti-war crowd has become the enemy of cold, hard facts. Today they talk of John McCain's "neo-imperial" ambition to keep peacetime troops in Mesopotamia, as if the U.S. didn't already have thousands of troops stationed around the globe serving in just that capacity. If Capitol Hill Democrats find themselves in need of something to do, perhaps they should reassert a benchmark plan. This time they can try holding themselves up to a set of standards. I will be so bold as to suggest the first one: evidentiary consistency. It shouldn't be hard to come up with 17 more.