Saturday, May 19, 2007

In the Heat of Battle and Politics, the Hard Facts Melt


BEWARE the benchmarks of Iraq.

As Congress and the American public begin to ask for tangible and quantitative measures of whether the troop increase in Iraq is creating improvement or presiding over failure, it would be wise to remember the kind of place where the United States is dispatching — metaphorically, at least — its statisticians.

Iraq is the place where there are still wildly conflicting estimates of something as fundamental as how many civilians have died as a result of the war. It is a place where some government officials will swear that there are 348,000 wonderfully trained, motivated and equipped Iraqis in the security forces and other officials will tell you that most of those troops and police either have questionable loyalties, lack equipment or simply do not always report for duty.

The precision is very important: 348,000, according to Wednesday’s update from the Pentagon. Or, perhaps, hundreds of thousands less. And the disagreements do not go away even when various groups agree on basic facts — say, that the United States has now spent $8.9 billion of its own and Iraq’s money on rebuilding the electricity and oil sectors, according to the latest figures from the Government Accountability Office.

In those same numbers, oversight agencies see a rebuilding program that has fallen short of virtually all of its performance goals and had little impact on Iraqis’ lives, while organizations that are heavily involved in the program, like the United States Army Corps of Engineers, see a huge success that has not received due credit.

“Nationwide, and since the time of sovereignty in 2004, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has completed over 3,000 of the original 3,786 projects in the Iraq Reconstruction Program,” according to a recent news release from the corps.

How can a single country look so kaleidoscopically different depending on the point of view?

Part of the answer is clearly that competing political entities strain with all their might to see a reality that fits their convictions — and that includes official entities that are determined to show progress, said Justin Logan, an analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute. “You can always show progress,” he said. “Somewhere in Iraq, something is better than it was three months ago, and you can go and get somebody to write that story.”........

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