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 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 are 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.
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.