Measuring failure in Iraq

In attempting to argue the success of the surge, Gen. David Petraeus presented a bevy of controversial statistics about deaths, attacks, bombings and violence. Other agencies, from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to the Iraqi Interior Ministry, have offered contradictory numbers, suggesting the whole enterprise is fraught with inaccuracies. Apparently, for example, the U.S. considers those shot from the front as victims of crime, not sectarian violence. It is an odd counting rule, but apparently helps the administration make its case.

As important as agreeing on the statistics, though, is assessing their meaning. Numbers do not speak for themselves; they must be interpreted. In the end, whether mostly right or terribly wrong, the general’s statistics do not mean very much because they are largely unrelated to the goals President Bush delineated. In short, the general is measuring the wrong things.

In announcing his escalation of the war in January, President Bush offered two central criteria for success. One goal was giving “the Iraqi government … the breathing space it needs to make progress in other critical areas.” President Bush also made it clear that for the surge to be “successful,” “ordinary Iraqi citizens must see that military operations are accompanied by visible improvements in their neighborhoods and communities.”

By his own standards, the president’s policy has been an abject failure, while the statistics Gen. Petraeus recited are mostly irrelevant. The real tests are not in the number of bombings, but in the attitudes of the Iraqi people and the actions of their government. Bush’s goal was not merely to reduce the number of violent outbreaks; his purpose was to motivate action by the Iraqi government and transform Iraqis’ thinking about their own situation. The administration has almost nothing good to say on either count.

Whatever the numbers on violence may be, it is clear that the Iraqi government has made precious little progress toward meeting its political objectives. The GAO reported that Iraq has met only one of eight political benchmarks, a bleak assessment with which neither Gen. Petraeus nor Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker disagreed.

Moreover, a fascinating poll of Iraqis, conducted by ABC and its international partners, reveals that, in most respects, Iraqis are more negative about their prospects and more hostile toward the U.S than ever.

Nearly eight in 10 think things are going badly for their country, a 13-point increase in negative sentiment since March.
Even in the security arena, Iraqis contend their situation has deteriorated. Only a quarter say security in their neighborhood or village has improved, with a mere 11 percent claiming improvement in the security nationwide.

Iraqis simply do not perceive the reduction in violence Gen. Petraeus reports. The number feeling safe in their neighborhoods (a mere 26 percent) is unchanged, while the percentage of Iraqis reporting that a suicide or car bomb has exploded near them has increased by 10 percentage points.

Though designed to demonstrate the benefit of the American security umbrella to Iraqis, the surge has accomplished just the opposite.  Seventy percent of Iraqis say it has made security worse, not better, in the areas to which U.S. forces were sent, and an identical number report that the surge has reduced rather than enhanced the prospects for political dialogue in Iraq.

The result is chilling: support for the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq is at its lowest level ever (25 percent), while popular support for attacks against American troops reached a record high (57 percent). Think about that for a moment — nearly six in 10 of the people we are trying to help support killing our military personnel.

It is no wonder that Gallup just found the largest majority of Americans ever — 60 percent — supporting a timetable for withdrawal.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.