The best foreign-policy advice any president left behind for his
successors was Teddy Roosevelt's admonition: "Walk softly, and carry a
big stick." President-elect Barack Obama should take it to heart.
In a "60 Minutes" interview Sunday evening, Obama sounded
well-intentioned - but dishearteningly like President Bush at his most
naive: He set his own bar for success impossibly high.
Just as Bush vowed to get Osama "dead or alive," Obama suggested - as he did during the campaign - that he'll get the terror master Bush failed to find. Worse, the president-elect stated that he'll "stamp out al Qaeda once and for all."
Let's be clear: No matter whom we supported up until Nov. 4, the
American people have spoken. Obama will be our next president. To wish
him ill is to wish harm to America for partisan purposes. Let's hope he
delivers great accomplishments.
But the fact is that, security-wise, we're paying a price for
decades of electing presidents with no military experience and no
previous interest in things military. Democrat or Republican, they make
unrealistic promises that play into our enemies' hands. They don't know
what they're talking about - but they sure do talk.
And that's how we have to view Obama's repeated insistence that he'll be the one to "kill or capture Osama bin Laden."
Osama may be found and killed tomorrow or on the day after the inauguration - or never. But if we do nail him, it won't be because of presidential posturing.
Bush has done all he could to finish off the al Qaeda leader (for
Bush, it was personal; for Obama, it's just political). There's no new
magic formula waiting to be applied: This effort is still about skill,
persistence and luck.
Yes, luck matters in the Intelligence world. Sometimes you just
have to wait for your opponent to make one small, fatal mistake, or for
a disaffected walk-in, or for a chance sighting by a source you've
spent years cultivating.
A fateful error amateurs make about intelligence is to assume that
any problem can be solved if we hurl more resources at it. But
top-of-the-game intelligence work is about quality, not quantity. It
doesn't help to have a dozen seasonal-hire carpenters all whacking at
the same nail - better to have one skilled carpenter on the job.
We'd all love to see Osama lying dead in the dust. But, please, Mr.
President-elect: Don't make claims that, if unfulfilled, allow our
enemies to declare victory.
That's doubly applicable as regards Obama's promise to "stamp out
al Qaeda once and for all." He might as well claim he'll eliminate
crime or drug abuse.
The Middle East is so utterly broken it's going to continue
producing fanatics for decades. Our desired end state should recall our
bygone campaigns against the Mafia: Reduce the power and
reach of the enemy, pushing him to the margins where, instead of posing
a strategic threat, he's just a nuisance.
That's the best that we can hope to achieve.
The same applies to the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Both the Taliban and al Qaeda have deep, if narrow, constituencies. This is a very
long-term struggle, transcending any single administration. Winning
doesn't mean achieving a terror-free world - an impossible goal - but
minimizing, localizing and demythologizing the damage terrorists do.
It's our job to kill terrorists, but only the cultures from which they spring can kill the terror impulse.
This doesn't mean the struggle isn't worth it - it's essential. But we need to have realistic expectations as to what we can achieve in such a self-tormenting region as the greater Middle East.
The campaign's over. President-elect Obama needs to stop making
campaign promises that invite a perception of failure if unfulfilled. A
trumpeted commitment to eliminate al Qaeda means that if a single terrorist cell survives, al Qaeda gets to declare victory.
Win first; brag later.
Ralph Peters' latest book is "Looking for Trouble: Adventures in a Broken World."