Sunday, August 28, 2005

The Most Revelatory Sentence I've Ever Read on Iraq

. . . comes from that recent Foreign Affairs article everyone's talking about, and it goes like this:
Without a clear strategy in Iraq, moreover, there is no good way to gauge progress.
Yeah, I know it seems pretty obvious, but allow me to explain. Hawks love to talk about how the media downplay everything that's going "right" in Iraq at the expense of the gory, eyeball-drawing details. They chalk this perspective up not only to liberal bias but also to "disaster bias"--the overarching journalistic tendency to focus on failures, destruction, and death over successes, which mostly consist of people not dying and property not getting blown up. So they look to sources like Chris Hitchens, Arthur Chrenkoff, and assorted National Review pundits for counterbalance. Meanwhile, doves and other war opponents have to look no further than the mainstream media and anti-war Democrats like Dick Durbin and Max Cleland for confirmation that the whole adventure is turning out a quagmire, just like they said it would in the beginning.

And thus the controversy thrashes, week in and week out, without ever getting anywhere. For each new negative factoid the doves fire off, the hawks retaliate with a positive counterfactoid, and the end result amounts to little more than a disorganized heap of mixed data. But what if instead of using individual data points as ideological ammo, we had a specific set of goals to plug each bit of info into? These goals could include "reducing the number of American and Iraqi casualties per month," "reducing the number of car bombings per month," "increasing electricity production," and "increasing the amount of potable water to the civilian populace." Then we could look at the data available on each goal to see how we're moving toward them. For example, steadily declining numbers of troop deaths over a period of months would indicate progress and vindicate current strategies, while increasing or erratic numbers would suggest changing strategies.

The Bush administration could help us out by publicizing empirical goals like these so that we could keep track of their advancement. But Bush has found that most rank-and-file war supporters are satisfied with the simple amorphousness of the word "progress," so he has little political incentive to stop using it. Besides, operationalizing progress significantly increases demand for success, because poor numbers stir up calls for accountability and, if they're bad enough for long enough, ouster. So the goals are kept as vague as possible, to the point that even the military's top brass admit that they don't know what they're working toward.

It should go without saying that that's a huge problem. And I'd never before considered just how crucial it is to define one's goals quantitatively when prosecuting a war. If you want to win, you have to have both a detailed picture in black and white of what winning will look like as well as an equally detailed strategy for actually winning. If you don't, you're just flushing valuable lives and money down the toilet.