walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: December 8, 2009
Bin Laden and Gambetta

General Stanley McChrystal let the cat out of the bag during his testimony today before Congress.  We can’t win against al-Qaeda, said America’s top general in Afghanistan, until we capture or kill Osama Bin Laden.

I think he’s right and have thought so for many years, but I don’t think it’s something to say much about.

“Think of it ever, speak of it never,” was the advice of the great French republican leader Leon Gambetta.  He was speaking of the Battle of Sedan and France’s catastrophic defeat in the Franco-Prussian war followed by the loss of Alsace and Lorraine to the new German Empire.

That is generally the way American officials should handle the Bin Laden situation.  The more we talk, the more we build the legend.  The more American policy appears to be aimed at capturing or killing one man, the more we look like Elmer Fudd, endlessly and cluelessly pursuing Bugs Bunny.  In fact, the United States has many other fish to fry in Afghanistan and the neighboring countries, and operations directed against Bin Laden personally can only be one part of this larger issue.

Yet it is certainly true that ‘getting’ Bin Laden would deal what is left of al-Qaeda a devastating blow.  Defeated in Iraq, defeated (hopefully) in Afghanistan, and its charismatic leader no longer on the scene, al-Qaeda would be a much weaker presence in the world.  More than that, President Obama would likely find it easier to extricate the United States from Afghanistan with Bin Laden safely in hand.

I haven’t been surprised that Bin Laden is so hard to capture.  History is filled with examples of charismatic bandits or guerrilla warriors who elude large empires and powerful states for years and even decades.  Think of Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham.  Usually such men are only brought down by the treachery of some associate; a highly motivated group of picked men like those around Bin Laden is unlikely to have many Iscariots left at this point.

From time to time it is probably worth saying what General McChrystal did, if only to reassure American public opinion that our military leaders really do grasp the importance of capturing this man.  But we shouldn’t make it a habit; Leon Gambetta knew what he was talking about.

Our minds should be focused, but our lips should be sealed.

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  • Bill

    Why are we convinced Bin Laden is still alive. The last video of him didn’t look like him at all. I find this suspicious.

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