In new fight, shades of cold war

As in its battle with communism, US may come to see all priorities through a single lens: containing terrorism.

Three weeks on, it is becoming increasingly clear that the United States' struggle against terrorism will likely be less a hot fight than a multidimensional strategy of perseverance.

Retaliation for the Sept. 11 strikes against New York and Washington might yet come at any moment. Osama bin Laden remains a key target for US military forces.

But to this point, the US response to the attacks has belied the Bush administration's initial warlike rhetoric. Official actions have emphasized domestic security, freezing of suspects' financial assets, and the construction of an international antiterror coalition.

The analogy seems less with the Gulf War than with the cold war - America's long, twilight struggle against communism. As in the cold war, virtually all the nation's priorities and commitments are being rethought, with the containment, and eventual rollback, of an overarching threat in mind.

"The one place you can most clearly make the comparison to the cold war is how this is going to be the central focus of US foreign policy," says Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

From the first, President Bush has talked about the terrorism fight as a long and difficult one that will test the national will as much as it does the Marines.

But the bellicose nature of some of his early remarks, such as his desire to catch Osama bin Laden "dead or alive," implied that military moves might be imminent. Combined with reports of troop movements, the authorization of a call-up of the reserves, and the administration's very use of the word "war," many Americans received the impression that the 82nd Airborne might shortly be arriving on the outskirts of Kabul.

In reality, the emerging US strategy has two obvious layers, say officials and experts outside government. The first is the hunt for the immediate perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks. Rather than a quick US military strike, this is likely to involve special-operations missions. It involves brainpower - via intelligence and international police work - as much as bullets.

The second is the reorganization of national life, insofar as possible, in an effort to render Americans safe from fear of sudden attack. However difficult the bin Laden manhunt must be, it is this secondary layer that would require the most profound changes - in everything from the US budget to America's relationship with Russia, or China, or Iran.

As the cold war was a fight against communism, the terrorist war will be a struggle against a new "ism": radical Islamic extremism.

That makes it a war of ideas as much as a war of force, notes Michael McFaul, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. And a war of ideas is necessarily a multifaceted one. It will involve an effort to win the hearts and minds of at least some in the Middle East who might otherwise be sympathetic to radical Islamists' anti-Western message.

Force alone is unlikely to completely stamp out Al Qaeda, much less all terrorism of global reach. Experts estimate that Al Qaeda has cells in 50 countries.

But draining sympathy for Al Qaeda's aims, while chipping away at the willingness of nations such as Afghanistan and Sudan to be terrorist safe harbors, can contain the threat, and perhaps begin to reduce it. "The feeling in the cold war was if we could stop their expansion, the communists would collapse from the weight of their system," says Mr. Mead. "This is more of a criminal containment, with the mission being to keep incidents at an acceptably low level."

The importance of the terrorist fight also means that henceforth much of what the US government does will be seen through a single lens. Thus, budget planning now revolves around the billions presumed necessary for new military spending, as well as attack recovery.

As in the cold war, this also has meant a sudden and strict reordering of US relationships with other nations.

It is not quite a judgment of "either you are with us or against us," to paraphrase Mr. Bush. But it is close. Suddenly, the world is being divided into two camps. On one are those with the US and those, such as Iran, that the US hopes might be of some help in the future.

On the other side are nations in the crosshairs - Afghanistan being the most obvious and notable among them.

"The effort the Bush administration is trying to launch is like the cold war in that we have an organizing principle for foreign policy," says James Lindsay, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "But the strategies we use will be different."

That can be seen clearly in the allegiances that have already been pledged. Most notably, Russia has decided that embracing US aims in this regard serve its national interest. Only weeks ago, for President Vladimir Putin to agree to the deployment of US forces in former Soviet republics that border Afghanistan would have been virtually unthinkable. But Mr. Putin has clearly thrown in his lot with the West - and in doing so, perhaps gained some respite from US criticism of Russia's own human rights abuses in its war against Chechnya.

Pakistan has similarly already seen a quid for its quo of signing up in the US effort. The US has moved to lift economic sanctions on Pakistan that were part of the US nuclear-nonproliferation effort. For the risk Pakistani officials are taking of angering their own population's many bin Laden sympathizers, they are further expecting millions in US aid.

Cold-war containment was ultimately successful - but it had its excesses, too. McCarthyism spawned by the fears of the early years of communist confrontation robbed many Americans of their basic liberties. The US overlooked the thuggishness of many of its allies in the war against what many officials perceived as a communist tide. The US won the cold war - but it paid a "high price" along the way, says Mr. Lindsay.

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