Jewish World Review Oct. 30, 2001 / 13 Mar-Cheshvan 5762

Clarence Page

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Consumer Reports

It's not just about bin Laden -- EVERY so often, a Washington official, despite his or her best efforts, accidentally stumbles into telling the truth.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld experienced such a golden moment when he expressed doubts last week about our country's ability to capture or kill targeted terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.

"It's a big world," Rumsfeld remarked during a meeting with the editorial board at USA Today. "There are a lot of countries. (Bin Laden's) got a lot of people who support him, and I just don't know whether we'll be successful."

Oops! It appears be a no-no in today's wartime atmosphere to express anything short of absolute certainty about our national abilities. Like the fabled Canadian Mounties, we're apparently supposed to always get our man.

Such was the tone Rumsfeld was straining to express the next day after the newspaper's front page bannered: "Rumsfeld: U.S. May Never Get Bin Laden."

Facing reporters later, Rumsfeld assured the world, "I think we're going to get him."

As for the previous day's meeting, which he awkwardly described as "one of those semantic discussions," Rumsfeld quipped, "From time to time, I suppose, things come out of my mouth not quite the right way."

That's OK, Mr. Secretary. As my commentator colleague Michael Kinsley once famously said, a gaffe in Washington is when a politician tells the truth.

Since political etiquette usually doesn't allow such golden moments to last for long, Rumsfeld's straightforward conversational style has been refreshing in his almost daily press briefings, even if he sometimes has been too candid for his own comfort.

President Bush committed a similar sin when he said he wanted bin Laden "dead or alive." Critics ridiculed him for such wild-West rhetoric. That's what he gets for telling the truth.

For many, Bush's words were an unvarnished description of official policy. After all, our military has been trying, at his direction, to assassinate bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar with bombs and missiles. It is only in diplomatic terms that his word choice was not, to borrow one of his father's favorite words, "prudent."

Bush and Rumsfeld know that we might not find bin Laden. History shows it is very hard to track down a single guy in rugged terrain.

Just ask Eric Rudolph, if you can find him. Accused of the 1996 bombing of Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park, which killed two and injured 111, Rudolph has been eluding lawmen for years. He was last seen running into the hills of North Carolina. Afghanistan has about as much real estate as Texas, most of it in mountains that soar to more than 20,000 feet and speckled with thousands of deep caves to hide in.

With that in mind, the administration should be very clear that whether we get lucky and catch bin Laden or not, our foreign policy depends on much more than luck.

Whether bin Laden and his gang are caught or not, Bush officials propose to "drain the swamp" by making life difficult for any country that hosts terrorists who, in Bush's words, have "global reach."

Even if we don't catch bin Laden, we can make life difficult for him and his friends. Priority one for the Bush plan is the toppling of the Taliban regime. Reaching that achievable goal would serve as a warning to brutal regimes everywhere that there is a price to pay for harboring those who attack the United States or threaten its interests.

Unfortunately, that task has proved to be more complicated than America hoped, partly because the Taliban appear to be more resilient than expected and partly because there are no easy answers to the question of what sort of leadership is to follow the Taliban's fall.

Bush and his administration have tried to prepare us for a long and difficult "campaign," as Secretary of State Colin Powell has called the anti-terrorist effort. But preparation requires straight talk, not just happy talk.

No, we may not get bin Laden. Rumsfeld is quite correct to share his doubts about that task. But, America faces bigger challenges than this one man represents. Our national leaders need to talk to us without sugarcoating those realities. We're a grown-up country. We can handle the truth, even when it hurts.

Comment on JWR contributor Clarence Page's column by clicking here.


10/26/01: More than mail fell between the cracks
10/23/01: Terrorists threaten urban recovery, too
10/18/01: Sometimes, assassination warranted
10/15/01: Self-censorship rises again
10/12/01: Contradictions illustrate the complicated nature of the new terrorism
10/05/01: Look who's 'profiling' now
10/01/01: Don't trash liberty to save it
09/28/01: Life, love and cell phones during wartime
09/24/01: How to catch an elusive terrorist
09/21/01: The war I was waiting for
09/17/01: When rage turns to hate
09/13/01: Terror attack tests US, let's give right response
09/06/01: U.S. should have stayed and argued
09/04/01: Columbine killer's parents get upclose and personal
08/31/01: Virtual kids? Log me out
08/28/01: Two Africans, one black, one white, same fight
08/23/01: Sharpton for president
08/20/01: Shaking up the rules on keeping secrets
08/16/01: Bush's u-turn on racial goals
08/09/01: Outsider Bubba comes 'in' again
08/06/01: Not ready for 'color-blindness' yet
08/02/01: Immigration timing couldn't be better
07/26/01: Summer of Chandra: An international traveler's perspective
07/17/01: Overthrowing a régime is only the beginning
07/10/01: Big Brother is watching you, fining you
07/05/01: Can blacks be patriotic? Should they be?
06/19/01: Get 'real' about marriage
06/12/01: Amos, Andy and Tony Soprano
06/07/01: Getting tough with the Bush Twins
06/05/01: Bringing marriage back into fashion
05/31/01: "Ken" and "Johnnie": The odd-couple legal team
05/24/01: Sharpton's challenge to Jackson
05/22/01: Test scores equal (a) MERIT? (b) MENACE? (c) ALL OF ABOVE?
05/17/01: Anti-pot politics squeeze the ill
05/15/01: Was Babe Ruth black?
05/10/01: U.N.'s torture caucus slaps Uncle Sam
05/08/01: 'The Sopranos' a reflection of our times
05/03/01: 'Free-fire' zones, then and now
05/01/01: War on drugs misfires against students
04/26/01: Another athlete gets foot-in-mouth disease
04/23/01: 'Slave' boat mystery reveals real tragedy
04/19/01: McVeigh's execution show
04/12/01: Not this time, Jesse
04/05/01: Dubya is DEFINITELY his own man, you fools!
04/02/01: Milking MLK
03/29/01: The candidate who censored himself?
03/22/01: "Will Hispanics elbow blacks out of the way as the nation's most prominent minority group?"
03/19/01: Blacks and the SATs
03/15/01: The census: How much race still matters in the everyday life of America
03/12/01: Jesse is a victim!
03/08/01: Saving kids from becoming killers
03/01/01: Parents owe "Puffy" and Eminem our thanks

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