It is not so surprising that it took the U.S. and its allies seven months to find Saddam. Deserts are easy places to hide, especially if you have friends and loyalists who will shelter you and a ready supply of cash (Saddam was found with $750,000 in $100 bills) to buy their silence. Using the highest-technology then available and an army tens of thousands strong, the U.S. military under Gen. "Black Jack" Pershing was never able to capture the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa in the arroyos and badlands of Sonora after he laid waste Columbus, New Mexico in 1916. (Prosaically, Villa was killed years later not by the U.S. Army but by a man he had cuckolded.) Precisely two years ago, Osama bin Laden slipped away from the mountain ridges of Tora Bora into the cave-riddled, forested valleys of the Hindu Kush, and allied forces have not laid a glove on him since.
Bin Laden's continued ability to elude capture has bedeviled American efforts on the war against terrorism not because anyone supposes that from some rural fastness he is dictating strategies and tactics on the latest terrorist outrages, but because he remains a potent symbol of defiance. The capture of Saddam helps, but so long as bin Laden remains at large, all the power and high-tech wizardry of the American armed forces are still losing the battle that is most important in the Islamic world the struggle to convince ordinary Muslims that those who espouse terror and oppose liberal, modern social developments are bound, eventually, to lose.
It is of course true this, too, you will hear a hundred times in the next few days that the capture of Saddam is not the end of anything. The allied coalition in Iraq continues to appear unsure whether it is supposed to be some addled modern version of liberal imperialism or a short bridge to an early resumption of sovereign rule by Iraqis. The members of the Governing Council U.S.-appointed Iraqi leaders seem unclear whether they are meant to fade from the scene next summer, as the latest Washington plan for a transition to Iraqi rule implied, or whether they will have a role to play in the longer term. In Washington, the Administration, as ever, seems unable to decide whether it wants international help in Iraq say by forgiving Iraq's debts or would rather do without it (which is one interpretation of last week's memo limiting the countries whose firms will be able to bid for prime contracts in Iraq). And the insurgency will not end overnight. Remember: asymmetric warfare is aptly named. A mere handful of terrorists can tie up large armies for years indeed decades. Iraq is dripping with high explosives, guns and rocket-propelled grenades, and awash in angry young men who know how to use them and who would like to kill as many Americans as they can.
But none of those truths should diminish the power of last weekend's stupendous events. Iraqis both supporters of Saddam and those many who have had good reason to hate him for years now know that he is not coming back. For all those who wish Iraq well, and for an Administration in Washington for which reasons to celebrate have not always been in ample supply of late, that is the best news imaginable.