Benchmarks Key to Iraq Deal, But What Are They?

An Iraqi soldier mans a checkpoint in the restive Baghdad neighborhood of Yarmuk

An Iraqi soldier mans a checkpoint in the restive Baghdad neighborhood of Yarmuk, May 7, 2007. Security milestones are among the benchmarks under discussion for Iraq. Ali Yussef/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Ali Yussef/AFP/Getty Images

As the debate over the war in Iraq heats up, one word you're likely to hear often is benchmarks. They are key to overcoming the impasse between President Bush and the Democrat-controlled Congress. But the term is confusing and means different things to different people. Here, a guide for the benchmark-perplexed.

What is a benchmark?

A benchmark is any milestone that the Iraqi government must meet in a given amount of time. The White House and Congress have yet to hammer out specifics, but broadly speaking, everyone agrees on the kinds of milestones they want to see the Iraqi government meet:

  • Economic milestones, such as passing a law that equitably divides Iraq's oil wealth.
  • Political milestones, such as allowing former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party to return to jobs they lost when the party was banned from government, the armed forces, state-owned companies, universities and high schools.
  • Security milestones, such as disbanding Shiite militia.

Is the notion of benchmarks a new idea, one specific to Iraq?

No. The United States often ties foreign aid to criteria that other governments must meet. This ranges from meeting certain financial targets, to cracking down on drug traffickers, to improving performance on human rights.

So why are Iraqi benchmarks so contentious?

Because the stakes are so high. At issue is not only money — U.S. aid — but also the fate of some 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

Who first proposed benchmarks for Iraq?

The Iraq Study Group was among the first to suggest that the United States hold the Iraqi government accountable for progress. Last December, it said in its report:

"The United States should work closely with Iraq's leaders to support the achievement of specific objectives—or milestones—on national reconciliation, security, and governance. Miracles cannot be expected, but the people of Iraq have the right to expect action and progress."

Are there any drawbacks to setting deadlines for the Iraqi government?

Possibly. The Iraqi government doesn't want to be seen as taking orders from Washington. That will further weaken it in the eyes of the Iraqi people. And, as the Bush administration argues, hard-and-fast benchmarks might tie the hands of the U.S. and Iraqi governments. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made that point on CBS's Face The Nation on April 29.

"To say 'we must do this if they don't do that' doesn't allow us the flexibility and creativity that we need to move this forward," Rice said.

Many analysts, however, believe that the benefits of benchmarks outweigh the drawbacks. The Iraqi government, they say, must know what is expected of it.

Is the Iraqi government capable of meeting the benchmarks?

In the short run, probably not. The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is weak and divided. Some analysts also question the resolve of Maliki and other Iraqi leaders. For instance, the Iraqi parliament, which has a backlog of crucial legislation pending, plans to take a two-month recess this summer.

Who will determine whether the Iraqi government has met the benchmarks?

That's not yet clear. The White House would like President Bush to make the determination. Some congressional Republicans have suggested that Gen. David Petraeus, the top military commander in Iraq, make the call. Others say an impartial body, such as the General Accountability Office, should be the judge. In any event, choosing the "referee" is important because many of the benchmarks are fuzzy and open to interpretation.

How long does the Iraqi government have to meet the benchmarks?

That depends on whom you ask. Some proposals call for President Bush to certify every 30 days that the Iraqi government is "fully cooperating" with U.S. efforts toward the benchmarks. Others allow for as long as four months between reports.

What happens if the Iraqi government fails to meet the benchmarks?

Good question. That's the pivotal issue, and it's the one that is being debated most fiercely now on Capitol Hill. Some congressional Democrats want the United States to begin withdrawing troops should the Iraqi government fail to meet the benchmarks. The White House is adamantly opposed to that. A possible compromise solution is for the United States to withhold about $5 billion in non-military aid from Iraq. That would give the benchmarks some teeth, but not so much that President Bush objects.

Some analysts, however, question whether withholding funds will really make a difference to the United States now.

"In order to spend serious money, you need serious institutions," says Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

The Iraqi government doesn't have serious institutions, Alterman says, so withholding the funds is not likely to have much impact.

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