Here is a wise warning against get-rich-quick schemes: "If something seems too good to be true, it probably is." So don't give a fast-talking stranger your money when he promises to double it.
That's exactly how we ought to approach some recent happy talk from Iraq. With extreme caution.
The suspiciously good news comes in headlines that say the Iraqi government is cracking down on the murderous Shiite militias. And, pinkie swear, they're not just holding them for 20 minutes, then turning them loose to kill and torture again. They're actually keeping them locked up for weeks!
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said 400 members of the bloody Mahdi Army had been arrested "within the last few days," The New York Times reported. It said another official put the arrest total at 420 and stated they had been detained in 56 operations since October.
Well, which is it - 400 or 420, the last few days or since October? Good questions. Neither is probably true.
The speed with which the Bushies swallowed the claim made me doubly doubtful. The Republican National Committee touted the article in a mass e-mailing that seemed to say, "See, our plan is working."
I'm not buying it - not yet anyway. This sudden Iraqi determination to do the bare minimum doesn't pass the smell test. It strikes me as a slimy public relations effort to convince America that we ought to support President Bush's unpopular plan to send even more troops and money.
Methinks al-Maliki is playing us like a fiddle. With an able assist from the White House, which still thinks, at this late date, the American people will buy the thin gruel of vague promises.
Consider that for almost a year, we've been promised that al-Maliki would crush the Shiite militias, including those run by supporter Muqtada al-Sadr. He never did, and even stopped our troops from doing it. Now suddenly he can act when American disgust with the war is threatening to end his gravy train.
That al-Maliki starts to move only when Bush pressures him suggests al-Maliki could have cracked down all along. But that's an idea the White House has firmly rejected. Bush said we needed to send more troops to give al-Maliki "breathing room" and Secretary of State Rice told the Senate the problem for al-Maliki was one of "capacity," not will.
But the capacity didn't suddenly change in a week. His troops are no better trained now than they were when Rice downplayed their ability. What has changed was his will.
The Times quoted someone it called "a senior American military officer" as saying "there was definitely a change in attitudes" by the Iraqi government.
Curiouser and curiouser is what Alice said in Wonderland. And it's a perfect way to view this sudden burst of can-do attitude from our so-called allies.
There's the rub - allies. Al-Maliki, more and more, looks like the wrong guy for the job. We're supposed to get all misty-eyed over his leading a new democracy, but his history suggests he's quite comfortable in sectarian slaughterhouses. When he fled Iraq in 1979, he didn't run to Europe or the United States. He set up shop in Iran until 1990, when he went to another bastion of democracy, Syria. He returned to Iraq when we overthrew Saddam, and we engineered his rise to the top.
That may have been one of our many mistakes in Iraq. But it's no excuse for getting conned again. Especially when there's an easy test for the truth.
Let's applaud al-Maliki for his militia arrests, and tell him to keep doing it. And keep doing it. When Baghdad starts to look more like a city than a battlefield, we'll know we have a serious partner. Until then, let's keep our money in our pocket and our additional troops at home.