With Democrats hinting that they may give up setting specific timelines for withdrawing US troops from Iraq, the new focus on Capitol Hill is benchmarks.
They're seen as a way to hold the administration accountable and bring troops home.
But beware political buzzwords. While lawmakers are seeking clarity on benchmarks – what measures will be used to determine progress in Iraq and how they'll be used – the White House and Pentagon appear eager to keep them as ambiguous as possible. That way, military experts say, President Bush will be able to portray the "surge" positively and, quite possibly, keep troops in Iraq through 2008.
"The president will have to declare the surge a success because it's his only plan and he has to succeed there," says Lee Hamilton, the co-chair of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group and a former Democratic congressman from Indiana. "Come September, he will announce a success. The statistical information is probably going to be ambiguous enough that he will make an argument for it."
While Mr. Hamilton says he would like to see benchmarks tied to specific performance dates and reduction of US assistance if the Iraqis don't meet them, others say that such wiggle room makes sense from a political point of view.
"Any kind of benchmarks on legislation should be as vague as possible to give people room to maneuver in," says James Jay Carafano, a former Army officer and now senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. "Even then, when they're in the law, they're going to mean different things to different people."
The benchmarks are only useful to determine if the strategy is working correctly but not as factors that could determine the end of US assistance in Iraq, he says. Any tying of Iraqis' performance to specific US support is "unacceptable," because if they fail, it will tell the enemy that the US is giving up and going home.
The Defense Department has allowed the public's understanding of the benchmarks to remain murky, offering up little in the way of specifics when it comes to how the surge will actually be assessed come September.
Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, said April 26 they will likely encompass four major areas: security, economics, politics and governance, and the establishment of a viable criminal-justice system. But he left much open to interpretation.
Security, he suggested, is a relative term, and criteria to measure the security environment in Iraq by late summer will have to reflect the fact that suicide bombings and other kinds of attacks will not stop anytime soon. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the general's view of the security situation.]
"I think you have to be realistic and acknowledge there is going to be a continuation of some level of sensational attacks," said General Petraeus, comparing a future Iraq to Northern Ireland.
Petraeus said he had provided a "first-draft pre-decisional think piece" – essentially an assessment of how he'll conduct an assessment – to senior Pentagon officials on April 25.
To Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, benchmarks are even broader. While Americans can look at how the Iraqi forces have been trained and equipped, or the number of attacks each month or how many banks have opened, it all really comes down to a simple question, said General Pace, during an interview with defense reporters last month: Are Iraqis better off?
"I'd recommend a very simple but straightforward metric and that is a two-part question," Pace said. "One, do the people in Baghdad feel more secure today ... and [two,] do they believe that the next day and the days beyond they'll be even more secure than they are today? When the answer to both those questions is yes, then the impact of the military, governance, and economics will have had the impact desired. And if not, then all the other metrics may be of interest but aren't as compelling as that one is to me."
All of this suggests that the administration is not prepared to dole out any tough love to the Iraqi government anytime soon, says Paul Eaton, a retired Army two-star general who most recently led the US command in Iraq that trained Iraqi forces. Mr. Eaton has been very critical of the administration, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and the way in which President Bush has executed the war. He believes the US won't significantly withdraw forces until Mr. Bush leaves office in January 2009.
"This undisciplined government cannot hope to provide discipline to another government and that is the basis of our problem," Eaton says. "They will not impose discipline."