THE BLOG

Foreign Service Pessimism vs. Brookings Optimism

08/02/2007 05:39 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

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Over the last day and a half, I've been connecting with folks in the military, in intelligence, from the Department of State on the American side of the equation, as well as chatting with some well-placed Brits and even Iraqi government officials, and a good passle of journalists in order to kick the tires of the O'Hanlon/Pollack New York Times oped that Dick Cheney is now favorably referencing in his talking points.

My sources are at odds with the anecdotes these writers shared. But unlike John McCain's SWAT-Team aided escort through a marketplace, Pollack and O'Hanlon offer a litany of detail that probably are fair reads of how they see micro-circumstances now compared to similar micro-circumstances during their last trip. To their credit, they don't try and suggest that the political order is any healthier -- and they say that the place is still in a huge mess, and fragile.

They just say morale is up in the ranks and that the military is succeeding for the most part in securing its objectives. Again, this doesn't square with my data sets -- but they are on the line for their own report.

But to take their micro-observations further, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at a recent Maria Leavey breakfast, the plural of anecdote is not data. She did not buy the story being promulgated by the Brookings writers mostly because the only measure that can matter at this point in Iraq is a change in the paralyzed political standoff in Iraq's quasi-government.

Here is Speaker Pelosi's response to a question posed at a small breakfast I attended Tuesday:

Tom Oliphant: I'm just curious in advance whether, from people you trust in the past few weeks, you have a sense of what's going on in Iraq?

Speaker Pelosi: I've had a pretty good idea about what's been going on in Iraq. And it's not a pretty sight. It's a terrible sight.

The question is what will be the report in September? General Petraeus, I always keep thinking about this report, something we used to say in appropriations. . .the plural of anecdote is not data. (Laughing from crowd)

So, they will tell us about an isolated 'well over here hey did that, here they did that' and we have to keep the standard high. That is to say, 'is this worth what we're doing?' I'm very concerned that they will kick the can further down the road or talk about a few anecdotal successes that they'll try to pass off as the situation in Iraq.

The corruption, the no bid contracts, by the way, that's almost no bid and no performance contracts.

Any piece of it that you take is terrible on the ground in Iraq. The civil war is terrible in Iraq we have no business being in it.

So I think the standard people want to see is don't tell me anecdotally that you captured and held for five minutes someplace because some local Sunni decided to shoot his neighbor but what's the political change that is there? If there is no political change, there is no way that we should have our troops stay there.

But I just got an intriguing anonymous tip -- not double sourced -- but from a source I have confidence in.

Apparently, the State Department's Office of Inspector General (OIG) has commissioned some real heavyweights in the foreign service -- several high-ranking former ambassadors and others -- to participate in a large scale exercise on how non-combatant American personnnel would be evacuated from Kabul and Baghdad where America's largest embassy operations are now based. These are called NEO plans, or non-combatant evacuation operations.

Perhaps they have been watching the Department of Defense squirm in response to Hillary Clinton's question about planning for military withdrawal and are getting the State Department ready for her next letter on the subject. Or perhaps the State Department has reasons to worry given on the ground realities that we might not know about.

According to someone close to this effort, the evacuations from Liberia and Saigon are on peoples' minds, not the more rosy outlook offered by O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack.

This effort has been coordinated with CENTCOM and the 5th Fleet, in part because the latter would deploy anti-terror Marine teams to secure escape perimeters.

The word is that the "tone" of the diplomats was "not good" and "quite pessimistic about conditions." My source said that "there is a high level of concern."

According to another source, Al Jazeera posed a question to State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher about this NEO effort, and his response was "I'm not gonna comment on that."

Perhaps Dick Cheney will quote this Huffington Post item now in his next reference of contending outlooks on America's mess in Iraq.

-- Steve Clemons is Senior Fellow and Director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation and publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note