Waiting for Petraeus

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, August 12, 2007

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.

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