Waiting for Petraeus

By Jim Hoagland (THE WASHINGTON POST, 12/08/07):

Estragon: Let’s go.

Vladimir: We can’t.

Estragon: Why not?

Vladimir: We’re waiting for Godot.

Samuel Beckett sets ” Waiting for Godot” on a country road where two tramps desperately await someone or something that never comes. I now wonder if Beckett was somehow foretelling this summer of inferno along the banks of the Potomac, where politicians wait in mixed dread and hope for an Army general to come and tell them whether the nation should continue the war in Iraq.

The general is David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. President Bush says the report that Petraeus will deliver in mid-September will become the centerpiece of his Iraq strategy. Rarely has so much depended on one man and his assessment of what he has accomplished in just seven months.

This situation will not faze the extraordinarily self-confident and ambitious Petraeus. When he was awarded his fourth star in January at the relatively young age of 54, his peers joked among themselves that at last his rank had caught up with his ego. Among the traits the general shares with his president is a deficit of doubt in himself and his troops.

The promise of Petraeus’s arrival has already helped Bush buy time and temporarily stanch the hemorrhaging of vital congressional Republican support for the war. “The Washington clock” that was said to be outracing the Baghdad clock only a few weeks ago — as the Democratic majority moved to mandate U.S. withdrawals, then pulled back — has come to a stop as the Capitol waits for Petraeus.

Much decorated and a brilliant articulator of war-fighting doctrine, Petraeus will be no easy target for war critics of either party. The preliminary signals are that he will report authentic — if still fragile — signs of progress in establishing security in Baghdad and Anbar province. He may even ask for patience and time to continue what he has begun. He will not say much about political reconciliation, because there is so little to say that is positive.

The difference between Petraeus and Godot, of course, is that the general will come. He will make his report, spark new debate and probably buy Bush another month or two in the bitter domestic debate over Iraq that is irrevocably intertwined with the 2008 presidential and congressional elections.

Moreover, Godot was almost certainly not a person but a larger force, one that an evangelical Christian such as Bush would recognize as salvation. Salvation is what Vladimir and Estragon await in Beckett’s play and what Bush and the Democrats hope for in their different ways when they look at Iraq today. But just as salvation does not arrive on that country road, it is unlikely to arrive anytime soon in the enormous failure that the American occupation of Iraq has become.

Feedback in the past several weeks from military personnel serving in Iraq suggests to me that Petraeus can honestly report that his using more U.S. troops to pacify Baghdad neighborhoods and his arming and paying Sunni tribes to fight jihadists in Anbar have improved security.

But both of those efforts contradict and undermine Bush’s avowed strategy of moving as quickly as possible to turn over responsibility for security to a national Iraqi army. U.S. troops are being pushed to produce short-term security gains that are likely to be temporary and perhaps ultimately self-defeating.

Similar contradictions mar the U.S. push for political reconciliation: The White House is pressuring Iraq’s Kurds to vote for a national petroleum law that is not in Kurdish interests at exactly the same time that Bush representatives are suggesting to the Kurds that the United States does not support their constitutional right to a referendum on the status of Kirkuk this year. Likewise, the U.S. Embassy pushes Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to make politically damaging compromises with his foes as the CIA starts yet another version of its long-running effort to install its favorite Iraqi politician, Ayad Allawi, in Maliki’s job. And so on.

The policy contradictions and conflicts within his own government that Bush has never been able or willing to resolve have created a Beckett-like hell of unfulfilled expectations and immobility for both Iraqis and Americans.

Beckett foretold this, too: As they realize that Godot is not coming, Vladimir says to Estragon, “I sometimes wonder if we wouldn’t have been better off alone, each one for himself. We weren’t made for the same road.”

Estragon replies that it is not certain, and then asks: “Well, shall we go?”

Vladimir: “Yes, let’s go.”

They do not move.