Editorial Column: See You in September, Whatever That Means

New York Times

May 13, 2007 – Progress by September.

That, in three words, is the latest mandate from some nervous Republicans to President Bush over the war in Iraq. As the Democratic-controlled House passed yet another war spending bill last week, and Mr. Bush promised yet another veto, some members of his own party went to the White House with a blunt warning: We’re with you now, but if there is no progress by September, all bets are off.

There’s just one problem. Nobody in Washington seems to agree on what progress actually means — or how, precisely, it might be measured.

After his surprise trip to Iraq last week, Vice President Dick Cheney was asked by Fox News if he saw signs of “decisive progress.” He responded by talking about Anbar Province, where Sunni tribal sheiks are turning against Al Qaeda, he said. Mr. Bush, speaking to the party faithful last week in Washington, offered his own evidence that things are looking better, even before all five brigades of his troop buildup are in place.

“Sectarian murders are down,” the president declared, though he neglected to mention that car bombings and deaths of American soldiers are up.

That is not enough for lawmakers, especially Republicans who are uneasy about how they can go back home and justify their support for an increasingly unpopular war. Congress is grappling with legislation that would prod the Iraqi government into meeting so-called political benchmarks, like passing an oil-revenue-sharing law and holding provincial elections. But some in Washington are grasping for a more complete and accurate way to quantify progress.

“No one knows how to define progress in such a mixed-up situation,” said Representative Jack Kingston, Republican of Georgia and a member of the subcommittee that overseas military spending. “We’re having trouble measuring it. Imagine building a house without a ruler.”

Mr. Kingston, who holds weekly breakfast meetings with the Republican “theme team,” a group of about 30 lawmakers, is trying. The star of last week’s session, held in the basement of the Capitol, was the deputy prime minister of Iraq, Barham Salih, a Kurd. But equally important to Mr. Kingston was the other guest: Jason Campbell, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who is a co-author of something called the Iraq Index.

The Iraq Index is a huge compilation of data tracking life in Iraq — everything from the monthly car-bomb rate to how many foreign nationals are kidnapped to how many Iraqis have electricity and Internet access. It is long on numbers and short on analysis, though the latest report, dated April 30, includes a brief, and somewhat gloomy, summation in which the authors write that “on balance, the picture in Iraq has some signs of hope, but continues to present more grounds for worry than for confidence.”

Mr. Kingston has been circulating the index on both sides of the aisle and has asked its authors to winnow down the indicators to a manageable number — say, fewer than a dozen — that could serve as a standard bipartisan metric. Given that Brookings is a left-leaning institution, he said, he hoped Democrats might sign on.

“It would be like the Dow Jones,” he said. “Nobody accuses the Dow Jones of being biased. It would be good information for all of us. And then you could say who’s winning and losing.”

So far, Republicans like Mr. Kingston are hanging with the president on the spending bill. They voted overwhelmingly against a measure, vetoed by Mr. Bush earlier this month, to set a timeline for troop withdrawal. But they must also worry about re-election in 2008 — a worry the president no longer has. Having already lost control of Congress, they can ill afford another election in which Iraq is the dominant issue. A standardized metric might give them a useful exit strategy.

But Michael O’Hanlon, the lead author of the Iraq Index, is skeptical. He says metrics are “important grist for a fact-based debate,” but history shows it is dangerous to rely on too few of them.

“Metrics were used in Vietnam, and we had the wrong ones, and in my opinion they did net harm to the debate,” Mr. O’Hanlon said, adding, “I’m afraid that Congressman Kingston is going to continue to be frustrated, because we can’t be exactly precise about which indicators are the conclusive ones.”

In any event, such an index would be politically unpalatable to the White House, which does not want to back itself into a corner by agreeing to someone else’s standard for progress. The White House says the only progress report that counts is the one from Gen. David H. Petraeus, the new top commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the new ambassador, who are expected to testify on Capitol Hill in September.

The two are apparently trying to prepare. They have spent the last month in Iraq consulting with a team of independent advisers who have been asked to “think through the question of, Is the current strategy for waging war going well or not?” said Stephen Biddle, a defense policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations and member of the team. Mr. Biddle could not talk about his work, he said, but he did fault the White House for not being more open with the public about its own idea of what constitutes progress.

“By being unbelievably vague about everything,” he said, “they’re making it very hard for congressmen and senators to go to their constituents and say, ‘Look, here’s why things are going better than you might imagine.’ ”

Some say measuring progress is simple: you will know it when you see it.

“I want to see life starting to come back,” said Senator Robert Bennett, Republican of Utah, who has been generally supportive of the president. “I want to see people in markets. I want to see couples strolling down the street, folks sitting at outdoor cafes.”

Others, like Senator Susan Collins, the Maine Republican who is facing a strong Democratic challenger next year, have their own specific ideas. Ms. Collins says she is looking for provincial elections, an oil law to be signed and put in place, and “a significant reduction in violence and attacks accompanied by a transfer of more and more authority to the Iraqi forces.”

Ms. Collins, like Mr. Bennett, says much will depend on General Petraeus’s progress report. But she acknowledges that one man’s progress may be another man’s failure.

“To me,” she said, “the difficult question is going to be if the analysis is mixed, and I suspect it may well be. And for me, a mixed report is not sufficient to continue to have an open-ended commitment of troops.”

Some Republicans are not waiting until the fall to re-evaluate. Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee announced last week that while he would support funding the troops, he also intends to introduce legislation to put the bipartisan Iraq Study Group report into effect. The report sets a goal of withdrawing combat forces by March 2008, a timeline Mr. Bush explicitly rejected when he announced the troop buildup in January.

Mr. Alexander said he was simply trying to bring a divided country together. “I don’t see any way for us to maintain a long-term presence in Iraq,” he said, “without more bipartisan support.”

For Mr. Bush, then, the clock is ticking. Mr. Kingston says he expects the debate to “become a lot more democratic” in the next few months, as more Republicans grow queasy and defect.

In the meantime, he hopes to come up with some useful way of figuring out whether he and his colleagues should abandon their president in September, or remain supportive for a little while longer:

“I’ve heard three years of nearly happy-talk in testimony,” Mr. Kingston said. “We always seem to be about to be around this elusive corner, but we never get there.”

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