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,
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
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 countries, 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 antiwar
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.
Antiwar 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 antiwar
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 antiwar 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.
Reprinted with permission from RightWeb.