Grading on a Curve for the Wrong Test

President George W. Bush’s report today to Congress on Iraq, the White House’s “Initial Benchmark Assessment Report,” presents a series of assessments of Iraq’s performance on 18 benchmarks that have been jointly imposed by Congress and the President. Reading the report makes two things painfully obvious: 1) President Bush is grading Iraq on a curve; and 2) he and Congress are administering the wrong test.

While the Iraqis are assessed in the White House’s report to have achieved “satisfactory progress” on only eight of 18 “benchmarks” (six are rated “unsatisfactory”; two are given mixed ratings, and two are rated unable to be rated), it is painfully clear from reading the report that the “satisfactory” assessments are graded on a sharp curve. On political issues, any change – even a decision to delay a decision – is deemed “satisfactory.” On military questions, characteristics that would mean a military unit is unfit to fight in the American Army (such as the three brigades the Iraqis barely managed to cobble together to deploy to Baghdad) are deemed “satisfactory” in this report.

However, we are missing a far more fundamental and important point if all we take from this White House report is its transparent effort to make the situation in Iraq appear slightly less of a mess than others might perceive.

What comes through even more clearly is the imposition of alien benchmarks on the Iraqi society and its faltering government. These benchmarks are not an effort to assist Iraq recover from the disaster of the American invasion and occupation, they are an effort to impose Western, if not American, values and methods on a society that has been resisting them, mostly violently, for the last four years. Perhaps even more to the point, the benchmarks have every appearance of an effort to make American politicians, not Iraqi citizens, feel better about themselves. An oil law to assist non-Iraqi oil companies extract resources, Western notions of constitutional law and minority rights, federalism – if not regionalism leading to virtual partition – and ending forthwith centuries old divisions in the society are just some of the end states the benchmarks seek to effect.

Moreover, the politicians in the White House and Congress pushing the benchmarks are probably thankful these tests are not being imposed on them, if the thought of oversight of themselves were ever to occur to them. For example:

Benchmark X seeks to permit Iraqi military commanders “to make tactical and operational decisions … without political intervention …” That would have been an excellent suggestion for former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and several others during the run up to the initial American invasion and for the political wrangling going on this very week in Congress from both sides of the political aisle.

The discussion in the White House report on benchmark XI (“Ensuring that Iraqi Security Forces are providing even-handed enforcement of the law”) complains that, “There have been inadequate efforts to detain some senior … officials believed responsible for human rights abuses….” The hypocrisy of this “benchmark” pains the core of every decent American’s soul.

Benchmark VI calls on Iraqis to enact amnesty legislation, something that was a long time in coming after the American Civil War and that today’s anti-immigration activists scream against from the rooftops; it bespeaks a frame of mind that many Republicans and Democrats in Congress never fail to reject as they pretend to lament the absence of bipartisanship.

Are the benchmarks an honest and soundly based effort to assist Iraqi society and government? Or, are they an excuse-in-waiting for American politicians to exploit when they try to explain away the failure of a half decade of misbegotten policy, more than half a trillion dollars, and 3,600-plus American military lives.

Bush’s new “Initial Benchmark Assessment Report” is an interesting document, but it should be read to understand American political maneuvering with respect to the war, rather than a measure of “progress” in Iraq.

The full text of the White House report and associated materials can be found at:

WINSLOW T. WHEELER is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information and author of The Wastrels of Defense. Over 31 years, he worked for US Senators from both political parties and the Government Accountability Office on national security issues.



Winslow T. Wheeler worked for 31 years on Capitol Hill for both Republican and Democratic Senators and for the Government Accountability Office on national security and program evaluation issues. When he left Capitol Hill he worked at the Center for Defense Information and the Project On Government Oversight for thirteen years altogether.