WASHINGTON - It isn't really a romance turned sour, because it was never sweet.
The U.S. military's cocky heroes were supposed to sweep in and carry off a poor, grateful Iraq to security and bliss, like Richard Gere did Debra Winger in the finale of "An Officer and a Gentleman." The strategy was: Love lift us up where we belong/Where the eagles cry/On a mountain high.
Didn't happen. Yet the search goes on, in this country obsessed with hookups and breakups, for the right relationship metaphor to describe our deadly embrace of Iraq.
Some women say that the Surge will not work because it's like starting over with an old boyfriend: You think you've learned the pitfalls and can resume with more success - you can set benchmarks! - but instead you're swiftly ensnared by the same old failures. And the most maddening romances, of course, are those in which you think you have the power, you should have the power, but somehow in the end, you don't have the power.
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Many Bush officials and lawmakers now talk about the Iraqis with impatience, as though they are deadbeat relatives who have got to stop putting the pinch on us for a billion a week and try harder, in the immortal words of Rummy, "to pull up their socks."
They might still speak diplomatically, but in body language, Condoleezza Rice and her chosen new deputy, John Negroponte, radiate irritation with the Iraqis, as though they are the most irksome of cousins or in-laws who have long overstayed their welcome, or children who not only don't thank you for presents but also leave the playroom a mess.
The favorite analogy of Rummy and others who pushed the war was parent-child. "If you never take the training wheels off a kid's bicycle," Paul Wolfowitz would say, "he'll never learn to ride without them."
But that is too Norman Rockwell for a scene straight out of Hieronymus Bosch.
At times, the American-Iraqi relationship seems so cursed that the most apt metaphor would be a fairy tale like "The Golden Goose" of the Brothers Grimm, in which a girl sees a bling bird that belongs to a despised boy and tries to pluck a feather for herself, but instead her hand gets stuck fast to the goose. Her sister comes along, thinking she can snatch a feather, but she gets stuck as soon as she touches the first girl. Then there's a Surge, when the third sister rushes to help but ends up stuck in a daisy chain of disaster.
With the Surge, as with the invasion of Iraq, W. is like the presumptuous date "who reserves a hotel room and then asks you to the prom," as my friend Dana Calvo put it.
Teddy Kennedy gave a speech at the National Press Club on Tuesday about his new legislation that would require congressional approval before troop levels can be increased. Afterward, he was asked if he would try to block the escalation with an amendment to an upcoming Iraq spending request.
"The horse will be out of the barn by the time we get there," Kennedy replied. "The president makes his speech now. We're going to get the appropriation request probably the end of January, early February." He said it could take eight more weeks for Congress to act. "By that time, the troops will already be there," he said. "And then we'll be asked, are we going to deny the body armor to the young men and women over there?"
In other words, the president will ask us to the prom once he reserves the hotel room.
Maureen Dowd, a columnist for the New York Times, can be reached at New York Times, editorial department, 229 W. 43rd St., New York, NY 10036.