Inflexible benchmarks — the tie that binds
By Peter Feaver Not too long ago, I observed that the benchmarks built into Obama’s AfPak strategy could cut both ways. At a minimum, they are a means for measuring the progress of the strategy. The Obama team hopes they will do much more. When President Obama was running for president, he emphasized how benchmarks ...
By Peter Feaver
By Peter Feaver
Not too long ago, I observed that the benchmarks built into Obama’s AfPak strategy could cut both ways.
At a minimum, they are a means for measuring the progress of the strategy. The Obama team hopes they will do much more. When President Obama was running for president, he emphasized how benchmarks could be used to exert leverage on slackers, say a Pakistani government that was not living up to its commitments.
I warned, however, that the same benchmarks could be used by others to exert leverage over the Obama strategy. That is, a failure to meet benchmarks could be taken as an indication that the strategy had failed and thus justification for abandoning the mission.
My argument was pooh-poohed by some, including Spencer Ackerman over at The Washington Independent who thought I was — well I guess the only polite way to put it is he thought I was a whiner. He says that all decent and reasonable people (by his definition, apparently, this excludes people who worked for the Bush Administration) understand that the proper response to missed benchmarks is making modest adjustments to your strategy (which was how I wanted them to be used but not, I feared, how they might be used).
I did not find his assertion that benchmarks would never cut both ways very persuasive, in part because he cites Matthew Yglesias as supporting his benign view. However, the piece he cites has Yglesias heralding benchmarks as "off-ramps." Benchmarks morphing into off-ramps is precisely what I worried about.
In fact, I had seen this sort of thing before. Throughout 2007, opponents of the surge, both in the Democratic Congress and in the media, would cite the delay in meeting the ultimate, long-term goals of the Iraq strategy embodied in the benchmarks as proof that the surge had failed. Their diagnosis of failure struck me as premature. And their prescription — abandon the surge, shift immediately to rapid withdrawal — would have been fatal for Iraq.
For benchmarks to be useful in a political-military strategy, there needs to be some flexibility in how they are constructed and interpreted, and especially in how the consequences of failure are meted out. Failed benchmarks should trigger strategic reassessment, but they should not trigger retreat — at least not necessarily and not immediately.
But you don’t have take my word for it. According to the Washington Post this weekend, the Obama team is keen to make sure that the Democratic Congress does not tie their hands by setting inflexible benchmarks.
Here is the key passage:
But the White House and U.S. military commanders, citing Pakistani political sensitivities and the need for flexibility, would like to set their own metrics. ‘I would say we are still in the process of developing sort of strategic-level metrics and benchmark’ for both Pakistan and Afghanistan, Defense Undersecretary Michelle Flournoy told Congress on Thursday. Lawmakers would be consulted, Flournoy said, and the administration hoped ‘to be able to bring those forward to you in the not-too-distant future.’"
I think Under Secretary Flournoy makes a lot of sense. She seems to get the point about benchmarks, and perhaps now others will as well.
Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.
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