WASHINGTON — The Bush administration's decision to set benchmarks for measuring the progress of the Iraq mission is now seen by some U.S. officials as a costly blunder that has only aided the White House's critics in Congress and its foes in Iraq.
When they began publicizing the benchmarks a year ago, administration officials saw them as realistic goals that would prod the Iraqi government toward reconciliation, while helping sustain political support for the effort at home. The yardsticks include steps vital to Iraq's stability: passage of a law to divide oil revenue among the key communities, reforms to allow more members of Saddam Hussein's party back into the government, and elections to divide power in the provinces.
Yet now, with the major goals still out of reach, the administration is playing down their importance. With an interim report on the U.S. effort due out today, administration officials instead are emphasizing other goals -- some of which are less ambitious but have been attained.
Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, recently told reporters that while the benchmarks remain important, "We have to look on a wider scale than the benchmarks themselves."
In private, many officials were more scathing in their critique, saying that defining the goals in such a way galvanized resistance in Iraq and gave war critics a way to argue that the U.S. mission was falling short.
"You better believe it was a mistake," said a Pentagon official who spoke on condition of anonymity when criticizing administration policy. "In any armed conflict, trying to predict the future is folly.... You are setting up some degree of failure."
President Bush turned to benchmarks amid intensifying criticism from Congress and plummeting public support. Benchmarks offered a way to counter congressional demands for timetables and to dampen the midterm election rage that ultimately cost his party control of Congress.
Some officials now believe that setting benchmarks stirred resentment among proud Iraqi leaders and spelled out for anti-American groups in Iraq precisely the things they should try to obstruct.
The administration decided to make the goals public last summer, after the elected government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki took power. U.S. officials quickly realized that the fractious government would need a spur; at the same time, Iraq's leadership was under pressure from the United States to provide signs of progress to justify continuation of the war effort.
Senior U.S. officials -- while acknowledging at the time that brokering these deals would be tough -- voiced repeated public optimism that the goals would be met. At times, they seemed to threaten that if the Iraqis didn't move, there would be adverse consequences.
Bush, in a Jan. 10 speech laying out his troop "surge" strategy, outlined five of the major benchmarks and said: "America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced."
A senior administration official, briefing reporters that same day, said Iraq's leadership was "talking about, in a fairly short period of time" moving on the key reforms. He said U.S. officials would quickly acquire "the ability to judge" whether the Iraqis were living up to their promises.
But the effort bogged down.
By February, U.S. officials had grown deeply pessimistic about the prospects for easing of the so-called de-Baathification law to allow former low-ranking members of the deposed Baath Party to return to government.
The same month, U.S. officials announced that a new oil law had made it through Maliki's Cabinet and seemed on a path to enactment. But its progress soon ground to a halt, and the measure continues to languish.
The Maliki government, in laying out benchmarks for itself last year, had called for the completion of many by the first quarter of this year. But officials failed to make the deadlines.
The Bush administration has not penalized the Iraqis for these failures. U.S. officials said they understood that the central government was weak and couldn't force consensus if it wanted to.
But the delays did have a consequence -- stirring louder and more sharply focused criticism of the Baghdad government in Congress, among Republicans and Democrats. The criticism played a pivotal role in persuading many lawmakers to split with the White House over the war.
This spring, Congress wrote 18 benchmarks for political, security and economic reforms into the 2007 emergency war-spending bill. The yardsticks were based on pledges of action that the Maliki government had made in January, when Bush agreed to send in more U.S. troops. Bush signed that measure, endorsing the 18 goals.
Some U.S. officials insist that the benchmarks remain important, and emphasize that the Iraqis had made some progress.