Friday, December 02, 2005

The War on Accountability

I wasn’t sure what I would find when I started reading the National Strategy for Victory in Iraq that was released Wednesday. But I knew what I wouldn’t find: a timetable. Timetable has become a dirty word in the administration’s rhetoric recently – usually followed by words like surrender or cut and run.

Worse, in the last few months the meaning of timetable has expanded to include any measurable goal. In the administration’s rhetoric, whatever smacks of accountability is tantamount to surrender. Because the war they've been fighting isn’t the War on Terror; it’s the War on Accountability.

National Strategy surrenders nothing in this war. It predicts nothing specific or checkable, and provides no metrics that might be used in the future to judge whether the strategy is going well or badly. “No war has ever been won on a timetable,” it says. The most National Strategy will do is break things down into short, medium, and long term goals, like this nugget from the Executive Summary:
Victory in Iraq is Defined in Stages
Short term, Iraq is making steady progress in fighting terrorists, meeting political milestones, building democratic institutions, and standing up security forces.
Medium term, Iraq is in the lead defeating terrorists and providing its own security, with a fully constitutional government in place, and on its way to achieving its economic potential.
Longer term, Iraq is peaceful, united, stable, and secure, well integrated into the international community, and a full partner in the global war on terrorism.

Not even Saddam himself is against an Iraq that is “peaceful, united, stable, and secure” (as long as he’s running it), so who can argue with the Strategy’s goals? But is “long term” three years? Five years? Fifty years? National Strategy makes a point of not saying.
Although we are confident of victory in Iraq, we will not put a date certain on when each stage of success will be reached. [original emphasis]

The Strategy is like a weatherman who, because he can’t predict the exact moment when the rain will stop, refuses to use any time factor at all. The sun will come out – sometime.

We’ve seen this behavior before. Prior to the Iraq invasion, the administration refused to estimate either the cost of the war or the number of troops that would be required to fight it – other than to attack the pessimistic predictions that other people made. (Optimistic projections, like “Iraq will pay for its own reconstruction,” typically drew no official comment.) Budget Director Mitch Daniels refused to make any estimate of what an invasion of Iraq might cost, other than to label Bush economic advisor Larry Lindsey’s estimate of $200 billion as “the upper end of a hypothetical.” Similarly, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said that the number of troops that an occupation would require was “not knowable” and it “makes no sense to try” to estimate the war’s cost. He did, however, disparage Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki’s estimate of several hundred thousand troops as “far from the mark.” (We now know that Lindsey’s estimate was too low and Shinseki’s fairly accurate, but both were forced to leave the government.)

If National Strategy can’t predict, though, it has no problems making retrospective time judgments, like this one:
It is not realistic to expect a fully functioning democracy, able to defeat its enemies and peacefully reconcile generational grievances, to be in place less than three years after Saddam was finally removed from power.

The administration can get away with such tut-tutting precisely because it so successfully avoided accountability three years ago. But imagine if President Bush had made this statement before the invasion. Did he know then that the optimistic scenarios being discussed were “not realistic”? Which rosy possibilities envisioned today are equally unrealistic?

Maybe three years from now someone will tell us.

As the President’s defenders so often remind us, it’s easier to criticize than to suggest an alternative. But in this case, I know exactly the report I want: I want measurable goals, with some time estimates about when those goals might be achieved. No corporate CEO could hand his board a strategy without metrics and timetables; no American president should get away with it either.

When I annotated the Iraq speech Bush gave in October, I listed some statistics demonstrating that the reconstruction was going badly: Iraqi oil production and electrical production, both of which peaked in the summer of 2004. Equally appropriate statistics about the security situation should be easy to assemble: What if we broke Iraq into districts of equal population and regularly reported the number of districts that had gone a month without an insurgency-related death?

And of course, the death rate of our troops is the most revealing statistic of all. Consider these numbers, which you won’t find in National Strategy for Victory in Iraq:

US Soldiers Killed in Iraqi (average per month)
2003: 48.6 (starting in March)
2004: 70.7
2005: 70.8 (through November)

If National Strategy’s optimistic scenarios of defeating the insurgency or handing the war off to the new Iraqi army hold any water, that number should start coming down. It hasn’t yet: 84 troops were killed in November, and ten more reported today.

Rather than hard numbers like these, National Strategy offers us well-packaged fluff.
Many of these reports with detailed metrics are released to the public, and are readily accessible. For example:
- Gains in training Iraqi security forces are updated weekly at;
- Improvements in the economy and infrastructure are collected weekly by the State Department ( as well as USAID, which continually updates its many ongoing programs and initiatives in Iraq (;
- Extensive reports are also made every three months to Congress, and are accessible at the State ( and Defense ( Department websites.
Americans can read and assess these reports to get a better sense of what is being done in Iraq and the progress being made on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis.

Which sounds great, until you actually go to those web sites. Propaganda is such an ugly word, so let’s just say they’re booster sites. If something good happened today, you’ll hear about it; if something bad happened, you won’t. (That’s exactly what National Strategy promised, right? The sites track “gains” and “improvements”.) The most recent headlines on MNSTCI are about a tank parade put on by the 9th Iraqi Army division to show off their new NATO-donated equipment, and a drill run by the 23rd Squadron of the Iraqi Air Force. The U.S. AID site will tell you about all the wonderful reconstruction projects they’re working on. Are those projects ahead or behind schedule? You don’t need to know that. Were last week’s projects blown up by terrorists or sold for scrap by corrupt Iraqi bureaucrats? You don’t need to know that, either. National Strategy thinks you need happy stories, not consistent measurements objectively tracked.

Such statistics as you will find in National Strategy are cherry-picked. The report tells you, for example, that oil production was higher in 2004 than 2003 (when our invasion shut down everything for several months). But it slides past the fact that monthly production peaked in September, 2004. And there are now, you will be overjoyed to hear, over three million cell phones in Iraq. (Victory!)

Happy-talk like this is easy when you don’t identify the key statistics ahead of time. The Soviets never lacked for evidence that the current five-year plan was succeeding, because with hindsight you can always find something that has improved. But the only way to chart real progress is by metrics picked in advance.

If victory in Iraq is even possible, it will come in measurable steps: American casualties will go down; Iraqi civilian casualties will go down; unemployment will go down; electrical production and oil production will go up. A real strategy for victory would identify such key variables and set goals for them. And there would be timetables.

Lots of timetables.


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