President Bush is facing an early legal deadline to deliver what he has been most resistant to providing: a set of specific benchmarks for measuring progress toward military and political stability in Iraq.
Under a little-noticed provision of the defense spending bill passed by Congress in May, Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld has until July 11 to send Capitol Hill a "comprehensive set of performance indicators and measures of stability and security" two years after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
A Pentagon spokeswoman, responding to my inquiry, said last week, "We are working toward completing the report by the due date."
If and when it comes in, it could do much more than the president's Tuesday night speech at Fort Bragg to provide a factual basis for judging how close we may be to reaching our goals in Iraq.
In that address, Bush once again demolished a straw man, denouncing any talk of a deadline for withdrawal of U.S. and coalition forces and any timetable for phasing them out. While public support for a pullout has grown, almost no one in Congress is advocating such a step.
What serious people are asking of the administration is a set of yardsticks by which the situation in Iraq can be realistically measured -- and accountability established for a strategy to reach those goals. That is something the president has refused to provide, beyond his cliched declaration that "the United States will stay as long as necessary -- and not one day longer."
It is hard to understand his resistance to this perfectly reasonable demand for a set of metrics by which all concerned -- Congress and the administration, service members and their families, and the general public -- could judge what is happening.
This is our first MBA president, a business school grad who generally operates on the principle that if you can't measure something, you are flying blind. He insists that his Office of Management and Budget keep score on how well each department and agency is meeting its program responsibilities. Why not measure the enormously expensive investment in Iraq?
Metrics are exactly what the serious critics in Congress say have been lacking. In a thoughtful speech on June 21, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, a Democrat who supported the invasion and vehemently opposes an early withdrawal, said continued public support depends on "a new compact between the administration and Congress to secure the informed consent of the American people, so that they give the president the time we need to succeed in Iraq."
"Specifically," Biden said, "the administration should develop with Congress clear benchmarks or goals in key areas: security, governance and politics, reconstruction and burden-sharing. We in Congress should aggressively assert our oversight responsibility by insisting that the administration report on progress toward those goals every month in public testimony."
Last week Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, the ranking Democrat on the defense Appropriations subcommittee, pointed to language in the report accompanying May's Iraq funding bill that would satisfy most of those demands. It orders the first detailed status report on July 11 and follow-ups every 90 days thereafter.
The information required is specific and detailed. It includes such measures of the security envi- ronment as the number of engagements per day, the count of trained Iraqi forces, the estimated strength of the Iraqi insurgency and the role of foreign fighters.
It orders up indicators of economic activity, including unemployment levels, electricity, water and oil production rates, and hunger and poverty levels.
It requires detailed information on the training of Iraqi military and security forces, their equipment, and their capabilities -- and the timetables for achieving full readiness.
It aims to end the confusion over Iraq's forces by asking specifically which Iraqi battalions are capable of operating independently, which can fight if supported by coalition forces and which are not ready to conduct counterinsurgency operations even with help. It also requires documentation on their absentee rates and calls for similar information on the Iraqi police forces and their training.
Finally, it directs Rumsfeld to provide -- either in public or in classified annexes -- an estimate of U.S. military forces needed in Iraq through the end of calendar 2006 and the criteria the administration will use to determine when it is safe to begin withdrawing forces from that country.
As a senior congressional aide told me, "if the Pentagon takes the law seriously and responds as robustly as it is capable of doing," we may finally begin to learn where we stand. Candid answers could restore the trust required to sustain the effort in Iraq. Bush's speeches don't meet that need.