What do the government of Nouri al-Maliki and under-performing New York public schools have in common? Each is likely to be subject to a new regime of performance benchmarks: If they don't meet specific targets on schedule, they'll lose support. In the case of Iraq, that means American troops. In the case of many New York City schools (and other schools throughout the state), that means dollars.

Let's take New York first. The state's new governor, Eliot Spitzer, announced yesterday that performance benchmarks would be part of a package of new financial assistance to schools throughout the state. Schools that do not meet the standards imposed by their "contracts" will lose funds, their principals will be fired, and in some instances the schools will be shut down. The approach is not new. Other states--and to a large extent federal assistance pursuant to No Child Left Behind--include performance benchmarks with incentives and accountability for failure. This can be have unwanted side effects, such as narrowing curricula (i.e., "teaching to the test") and even cheating, but there are ways to address these issues. A different problem is that withdrawal of funds hardly seems like a good way to improve a failing school. The students in the failing school pay the price. That's why students in such schemes are typically given an exit option. The basic idea is in some sense to mimic market forces: If a school fails, its students are given the option to choose another school, so the school and the people running it have an incentive to meet the benchmarks.

What is the incentive of the Maliki government to meet the benchmarks that Congressional supporters of the Bush troop increase want to set? The fear that if it does not, U.S. troops will be withdrawn. But the U.S. backers of this policy don't want to withdraw U.S. troops. If they did, they would withdraw them without first setting benchmarks. So the benchmarks become a game of chicken. If the Maliki government has independent reasons not to want to meet them -- e.g., it worries that a serious crackdown on Shiite militias will result in its losing political support -- then it will be tempted to test the U.S. By contrast, if the Maliki government does want to meet the benchmarks, but despite its best efforts, does not, will the U.S. then withdraw the troops anyway? That would seem undesirable from the standpoint of this policy. Where funds are withdrawn from a failing school, the students are given the chance to go to a different school, but if U.S. military support for the Maliki government is withdrawn, that support cannot simply be given to some other putative government. So benchmarks for progress by the Iraqi government may be unenforceable at best and counter-productive at worst. And I say that as someone who generally supports benchmark-driven accountability standards.