Maureen Dowd: Stuck in Iraq

So what else is new?

The Captors Become the Captives
Published: May 3, 2006

The invasion of Iraq has turned into “The Ransom of Red Chief.”

The famous short story by O. Henry, published in 1910, begins, “It looked like a good thing: but wait till I tell you.”

The tale is about a couple of guys who have a bold, illicit scheme they assume will be easy, but it ends up backfiring. The idea, one confesses afterward, must have struck them “during a moment of temporary mental apparition.”

Bill and Sam are fugitives lurking in a small town in Alabama who kidnap a prominent citizen’s child and ask for a ransom of $1,500. But once he is held in a nearby cave, the freckle-faced, red-haired boy turns out to be such a terror as he happily plays a violent Indian named Red Chief — attacking Bill and Sam with bricks, kicks, rocks, bites, a knife, a slingshot and a hot boiled potato — that he breaks the kidnappers’ spirit.

The tormentors become the tormented, dragging the reluctant Red Chief back to his affluent father, who refuses to take the problem child until Bill and Sam cough up $250.

The story has spawned many movies using the same name, and inspired others, including the “Home Alone” flicks, in which Macaulay Culkin fights off a couple of hapless robbers, and “Ruthless People,” in which an obnoxious rich wife played by Bette Midler is kidnapped by a sweet couple who have been swindled by her philandering husband. He wants Bette dead, so he refuses to pay her ransom, and Bette and her kidnappers team up against the sleazeball.

The ABC pilot “Let’s Rob Mick Jagger” sounds like the same dynamic: a loser janitor and pals plotting a heist on the pampered rock star’s penthouse, but you know that the devilish Sir Mick will not turn out to be the sap.

Now we see this classic plotline in the Middle East. The inept captors have become the captives. The country the administration precipitously grabbed and overconfidently took over has ended up trapping, draining, flummoxing and alarming the administration, which is more and more desperate to hand it off and escape.

President Bush said Saturday, “As Iraqis continue to make progress toward a democracy that can govern itself, defend itself, and sustain itself, more of our troops can come home.”

And in an interview in the new Vanity Fair, Todd Purdum asks Dick Cheney whether in his “darkest night” he has even “a little doubt” about the administration’s course. “No,” Vice says. “I think what we’ve done has been what needed to be done.”

But even if they and their 33 percent unshakeable base are still in denial, there’s a growing consensus that their plot was hatched, as O. Henry put it, “during a moment of temporary mental apparition” and that we’re the Middle East hostages now, to war and oil.

The Sunday graduation ceremony for nearly a thousand new Iraqi soldiers at a base near Baghdad turned into an ugly melee when dozens of Sunnis declared they would fight only in their home areas, another reflection of growing internecine bitterness.

The Washington Post reported last weekend that American troops in Hawija are growing more distrustful of their Iraqi counterparts, fearing that many soldiers they are training are cooperating with the enemy.

Senator Joseph Biden and Leslie Gelb wrote an Op-Ed in The Times on Monday promoting the idea of “decentralizing” Iraq into three “ethno-religious” groups, even though critics argue that this could make it more likely that the Sunni section would become a haven for Al Qaeda and the Shiite sector an Iranian satellite.

Another respected retired lieutenant general, William Odom, has joined the toil-and-trouble chorus with a piece in Foreign Policy magazine headlined “Cut and Run? You Bet.” He writes that withdrawing from “the big sandy” will encourage the terrorists, but argues that “our continued occupation of Iraq also encourages the killers — precisely because our invasion made Iraq safe for them.”

He says: “Invading Iraq was not in the interests of the United States. It was in the interests of Iran and Al Qaeda. For Iran, it avenged a grudge against Saddam for his invasion of the country in 1980. For Al Qaeda, it made it easier to kill Americans.” He concludes that “the war has paralyzed the United States in the world diplomatically and strategically.”

The U.S. may be paralyzed, but its leader is pedaling. The commander in chief, who could learn something about wily and resilient ways to adapt a war plan from Red Chief, spent a couple of hours yesterday afternoon biking and savoring the beautiful spring weather. When you’re on the hook, play hooky.

The Discussion: One Comment

Thanks for the post. The NYT making their stuff “pay per view” has been a real hassle. I’m glad that someone cares enough to help get the word out. Cheers.

May 3, 2006 @ 7:34 pm | Comment

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