There is an old Jewish story about a man who lives in a very small house with his wife, many children, no space, and very little money. So the man goes to his rabbi for advice: "Rabbi, you are so wise, and here I am living in a small house, with no light and little space. And I am so poor. What can I do?" The rabbi listens and instructs the man: "Go to the market, buy a goat, and put the goat inside the house with you for a week and then come back to me." The man is shocked: "But, rabbi, as I told you, I have very little space and money. If I buy a goat, I won’t have any space and I’ll lose all my money." But the rabbi insists: "Get that goat!" So the man buys the goat. He takes it home with him. The goat eats the furniture. It’s too big and takes up all the space in the small home. The man’s life is miserable. After a week, he goes to the rabbi and cries: "Rabbi, I put a goat inside my house. There is really no space anymore. Please help!" The rabbi responds: "Go to the market, sell your goat, and come back to me in one week." The man sells the goat and returns after a week to the rabbi. "Rabbi, this week my life was great! With no goat in the house, it’s really huge now and my family and I have so much space to live in. And after selling the goat, I actually have more money. You are a very wise man, rabbi!"
Recall that when President George W. Bush announced the "surge" in the aftermath of the November 2006 midterm elections and against the backdrop of the continuing mess in Iraq, most lawmakers and pundits in Washington, not unlike the man in our story, were shocked. After all, the clear political message from the elections, in which Republicans lost their majority in both the Senate and the House, was that the American people wanted steps to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. Moreover, the conclusion of the Iraq Study Group, chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton, which reflected the general consensus among the members of the foreign policy establishment, was that the United States should start to disengage from Iraq and work together with other regional players, including Iran and Syria, to bring stability to Iraq.
Indeed, the conventional wisdom in Washington at that time was that for all practical purposes, the United States lost the war in Iraq. The neoconservative project was over. The foreign policy realists would now be in charge, and their advice to Bush would be to declare victory and bring an end to America’s costly military intervention in the Middle East. The expectation on Capitol Hill, in the media, and at the think tanks was that the White House would probably start withdrawing a few thousand troops from Iraq and transfer the remaining forces to strategic locations on Iraq’s borders and employ them mostly for training the Iraqi forces, and that on the diplomatic front, the Bush administration would move ahead to "engage" Tehran and Damascus while putting new emphasis on reviving the peace process in the Holy Land.
But instead, Bush, like the rabbi in our story, told his people that he was going to make a messy situation messier. He rejected the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group and instead followed roughly the recommendations of a report prepared by leading neoconservative strategist Fredrick Kagan from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) to deploy tens of thousands more troops to Iraq. With the exception of low-level diplomatic talks with Iranian diplomats in Iraq and a brief exchange between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Syrian counterpart, no serious efforts were made to engage the Iranians and the Syrians. If anything, the rhetoric coming out of Washington suggested that the Bush administration still regarded these two governments as major threats to U.S. interests in Iraq, with reports raising the possibility of U.S. attack on Iranian nuclear installations. At the same time, growing military tensions between Israel and Syria ignited fears of an armed conflict between the two counties, which could bring about the intervention of the Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas and perhaps even lead to a confrontation between Iran and the United States. Hence much of what Bush has been doing since November 2006, like the rabbi’s advice to add a goat to the crowded house—seemed to be counterintuitive: Add more troops in Iraq.
It’s not surprising therefore that the question being in asked in Washington this week is whether Bush, like our rabbi, would turn out to be a "very wise man." With headlines in major daily newspapers and cable television news reporting that Gen. David H. Petraeus, the senior U.S. commander in Iraq, has suggested in his congressional testimony that the troop "surge" has made enough "progress" and that these additional combat forces can be pulled out of Iraq by next summer, is it possible that the response from politicians, media, and the general public would echo the reaction of the man in the story? The American people are doing away with the surge, like the man in the story did away with the goat. What a relief, but, are the president and the general really so wise?
Petraeus insisted in his testimony on Monday and Tuesday that he believed that thanks to the surge, the United States was meeting most of its military objectives in Iraq and that he had recommended to Bush a timetable that would include withdrawal by next July, slightly ahead of schedule, of the nearly 30,000 additional troops that Bush has sent to Iraq since January. Petraeus’ plan would rotate 2,000 Marines out of Anbar Province in western Iraq this month without replacing them, then begin pulling out 17,500 Army troops and 2,000 more Marines starting in mid-December. Together with the withdrawal of support troops that would return force levels to the "pre-surge" numbers of 130,000 by mid-July 2008, when new troop reductions will be considered. All of this certainly sounds like good news for Republican lawmakers and pro-war Democrats running for reelection in November 2008, who are under enormous pressure from voters to end the U.S. military intervention in Iraq. They will now be less likely to join the anti-war Democrats on Capitol Hill in supporting the setting of a timetable for the withdrawal of troops. Bush is expected to make the same points about "withdrawal" in a prime-time television address this week.
The somewhat vague commitment to end the surge and Petraeus’ credibility could buy Bush more time to pursue his military offensive in Iraq and leave the mess in that country to his successor in the White House. As a sign that the political momentum in Congress may be favoring Bush now, Republican Sen. John Warner of Virginia, who last month called on Bush to begin withdrawing troops by the end of the year, called Petraeus’ testimony "powerful, compelling, and credible." Warner, a former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee who is planning to retire next year, was regarded as one of the wavering Republican lawmakers who might have backed a congressional call for changing the course in Iraq. Similarly, Sen. Ben Nelson, Nebraska Democrat, also said after Petraeus’ testimony that he remained opposed to a congressionally mandated pullout, while Rep. Jim Marshall of Georgia, one of 10 House Democrats to vote in July against setting a timeline for withdrawal, called Petraeus’ testimony "powerful and persuasive," suggesting that he would not change his position on Iraq.
Anti-war critics have raised major questions about Petraeus’ credibility, arguing that he is not only identified with the failed U.S. strategy in Iraq but also that for all practical purposes he has become a political ally of Bush and of Republicans. In an article in the Washington Post that was published less than six weeks before the 2004 presidential election, Petraeus asserted that the Iraqi forces were making "tangible progress." The anti-war group MoveOn.org, in an advertisement in the New York Times, cited the 2004 article and accused Petraeus of "cooking the books for the White House," and suggested that "General Petraeus is likely to become General Betray Us." As a result, Democrats on Capitol Hill found themselves on the defensive as they tried to disassociate themselves from MoveOn.org. The Democrats seemed to have failed to mount a serious challenge to Petraeus and allowed him, and by extension the Bush administration, to set the terms of the current debate on Iraq. Most analysts predict that the Democrats will applaud the proposed plan of withdrawal and will couple that with a few ineffectual resolutions.
But the fact remains that very much like the rabbi in our story, General Petraeus has failed to change reality on the ground. The man did sell the goat and feels a temporary sense of relief. But in a week or so, he’ll recognize once again that he is living in poverty, in a very crowded house. As one anti-war Democrat, Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, has pointed out, the general’s testimony was a "Petraeus village" that was "just a façade to hide from view the continuing failure of the Bush administration’s strategy," and that Petraeus was "delivering too much White House spin in hopes of adding more time to what he calls the ‘Washington clock,’" i.e., the election season. In fact, the plan as outlined by Petraeus would still leave a main body of at least 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq next summer, and he stressed during his testimony that it would be premature to discuss a timetable for further withdrawals beyond those he outlined.
Sooner rather than later, the sense of relief among the American people that the "surge" could be over and that 30,000 troops may be coming back home will be replaced with the sentiment that will probably greet the next president: We got rid of the goat. But it’s still a big mess out there in Iraq.
Leon Hadar, a Washington-based journalist and contributor to Right Web (www.rightweb-online.org), is author most recently of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (2006). He blogs at globalparadigms.blogspot.com.