Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Revisiting "See You In September"

I want to return to the Sheryl Gay Stolberg article
See You in September, Whatever That Means
published in the New York Times on May 13th, 2007. There are many more important clues we can discover hiding the text. I did not have time to unravel them all during the first Charting Progress in Iraq post on this subject.

Following along the lines of the Forecast on Iraq post we'll once again de-construct and highlight some of the language and see what else that reveals. For fun, I have color coded the quoted text as follows.

Orange - vague metrics (e.g. progress, confidence, winning, losing)

Purple - vague quantification (e.g. up, down, better, more)

Green - specific metrics (e.g. sectarian murders, monthly bomb rate). Unfortunately, none of these have any specific numbers associated with them. Some have vague quantification and others have non at all.
  • "decisive progress"
  • "looking better"
  • Sectarian murders are down
  • "car bombings ... are up"
  • "deaths of American soldiers are up"
  • "some in Washington are grasping for a more complete and accurate way to quantify progress"
  • “No one knows how to define progress in such a mixed-up situation”
  • “We’re having trouble measuring it."
  • [Iraq Index includes] "the monthly car-bomb rate"
  • [Iraq Index includes] "how many foreign nationals are kidnapped"
  • [Iraq Index includes] "how many Iraqis have electricity"
  • [Iraq Index includes] "how many Iraqis have ... Internet access"
  • [the Iraq index] "is long on numbers and short on analysis"
  • "some signs of hope"
  • "more grounds for worry than for confidence"
  • [Rep Kingston (R-Georgia) wants to] "winnow down the indicators to a manageable number -- say, fewer than a dozen"
  • [Rep Kingston (R-Georgia) wants to create] "a standard bi-partisan metric"
  • [with such a metric in place] "then you could say who’s winning and losing
  • [Micheal O'Hanlon says] "metrics are grist for a fact based debate but history shows it is dangerous to rely on too few of them"
  • [Micheal O'Hanlon says] "metrics were used in Vietnam and we had the wrong ones"
  • [the Vietnam metrics] "did net harm to the debate"
  • [Micheal O'Hanlon says] "we can’t be exactly precise about which indicators are the conclusive ones”
  • "such an index would be politically unpalatable to the White House, which does not want to back itself into a corner by agreeing to someone else’s standard for progress"
  • "the White House says the only progress report that counts is the one from Gen. David H. Petraeus, the new top commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the new ambassador"
  • "is the current strategy for waging war going well or not?"
  • [Stephen Biddle] did fault the White House for not being more open with the public about its own idea of what constitutes progress
  • “By being unbelievably vague about everything,” he said, “they’re making it very hard for congressmen and senators to go to their constituents and say, ‘Look, here’s why things are going better than you might imagine.’ ”
  • "Some say measuring progress is simple: you will know it when you see it."
  • [Metrics suggested by Senator Robert Bennett (R-Utah)] I want to see life starting to come back,” “I want to see people in markets. I want to see couples strolling down the street, folks sitting at outdoor cafes.”
  • [Metrics suggested by Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) ] “a significant reduction in violence and attacks accompanied by a transfer of more and more authority to the Iraqi forces.”
  • [Senator Collins] “the difficult question is going to be if the analysis is mixed, and I suspect it may well be.
  • [Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) says] “I don’t see any way for us to maintain a long-term presence in Iraq without more bipartisan support.”
  • [Rep. Kingston] "hopes to come up with some useful way of figuring out ...whether [to] remain supportive for a little while longer"
  • [Rep. Kingston has] " heard three years of nearly happy-talk in testimony"
  • “We always seem to be about to be around this elusive corner, but we never get there.”
Bottom line:
The language we use to talk about the important aspects of our lives makes a difference. When we use language about an evolving situation this way (vague metrics coupled with imprecise quantification, and lack of any clear trend quantification and visualization), we are going to have a tough time making sense of what's actually happening, what it means, and what our best next step might be.

If we continue along this path of mushy metrics, vague quantification, and numerous instances of what appears to be learned helplessness, come September, we won't be in any better state to evaluate the situation than we are now

I have some more thoughts on some of the key quotes from above for a future post. There is a way forward that addresses Michael O'Hanlon's concerns and answers Rep. Kingston's call for assistance.

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