With Saddam finally in custody, it’s not just the politics over the war in Iraq that has experienced a seismic shift; the question of “where’s Osama?” has gone from possible campaign bumper sticker to a non-entity.
Not necessarily in the way you might think, though.
Saddam’s capture left the Democratic pretenders to the throne speechless, and President Bush was given fawning coverage by every network, from CNN to CBS. Many pundits and even newscasters suggested that arresting Saddam vindicated Bush’s decision to liberate Iraq.
And with the way the news media operates, Democratic frontrunner Howard Dean is now being barraged with questions challenging his opposition to the war. But if Dean thinks things look bleak now, he should wait until he realizes that he has been robbed of what could have been a potent long-term weapon in both the primary and general election campaigns.
If Saddam does face a public trial next year—as Bush called for on Monday—the political news for the President could get even better. Putting on public display the gory details of Saddam’s tyrannical reign—from torture chambers to rape rooms—will reassure anyone having doubts or second thoughts about the wisdom of the war that Bush made the only appropriate choice.
So what does any of this have to do with Osama bin Laden, politically speaking?
Before the war in Iraq took the media spotlight off of the other aspects of the war on terror, Democrats leery of criticizing Bush head-on were more than willing to remind folks that bin Laden still roamed free. With the left now much more emboldened—not to mention venomous—Democrats would no doubt hammer away at the Osama-at-large issue.
And with bin Laden releasing new tapes every few months on al-Jazeera, such attacks could resonate. Just as Americans probably now feel a much greater sense of success in Iraq seeing a disoriented Saddam in his old-man beard, the war on terror will feel like an uphill climb as long as the one face we have for the enemy is on a wanted poster instead of behind bars or looking up from a casket.
But the story behind Saddam’s capture teaches us an important lesson.
Coalition forces have spent the past eight months opening every barn door and turning over every stone. Not throughout the entire country, mind you, but in one relatively small city, Tikrit. Eight months, one city. And for the last nine days of the relentless manhunt, the search in Tikrit and the nearby Ad Dawr area was narrowed to a width of a mile and a half.
To fully appreciate the difficulty of locating the once-powerful despot, consider that soldiers first walked right past his little cubbyhole hideout. Then soldiers were literally standing on it. These were not 18-year-old enlisted men, either. They were from the highly-trained—and rightfully highly-regarded—special forces, which is why Saddam’s hole in the dirt was ultimately discovered.
Standing just above Saddam, one soldier noticed a tiny piece of fiber on a rubber mat sticking out from the dirt. He found it peculiar, so he and some others pulled at it, discovering the hidden lid on Saddam’s eight-foot deep hideout.
The capture is a huge morale boost for coalition forces—not to mention for millions of Iraqis who now can believe that the despot is never coming back—but it also demonstrates the inherent difficulty of tracking down someone with an organized support network, even in a fairly small spot on the map.
Saddam evaded arrest for eight months, even though he had only one area to which he could flee, his hometown of Tikrit. Osama bin Laden, on the other hand, has any number of towns (and caves) where he can take refuge in Afghanistan. Or in Pakistan. And it is not inconceivable that he could rest safely in Iran or Syria.
In short, bin Laden could be anywhere. The search for Saddam, though, will not only educate voters, it will give them reason to trust—and be patient with—Bush.
Democrats might still ask, “Where’s Osama?” but most voters will now have a different answer: “Soon enough, right next to Saddam, on death row. Just give Bush time.”