MONTEREY, CALIF. — One of the hardest decisions a president of the United States is obligated to make is that of going to war. It is a decision, however, that pales in comparison to the degree of difficulty in making peace when one's enemy remains unvanquished. With the release of Osama bin Laden's latest media communiqué offering a truce to the US, President Bush must decide whether to stick to the moribund old cliché "we don't negotiate with terrorists," or whether he should use this as a potential opportunity to redirect global politics along a path that serves US national interests.
Truth be told, almost all nation-states, including our own, have negotiated with terrorists. Israel's tough old soldier Yitzhak Rabin buried the hatchet with Yasser Arafat, and thus engendered a peace process that, despite many fits and starts, has steadily moved toward the creation of an independent and democratic Palestinian state. A vocal minority called Rabin soft on terrorism, but most Israelis understood he was acting in the country's best interests. President Reagan was credited for negotiating the release of American hostages with Iran, the leading state-sponsor of terror in modern times.
Under Reagan and the first President Bush, Iraq was removed from the State Department's list of terror sponsors in order to enable diplomatic engagement. When diplomacy failed and Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Mr. Bush adroitly marshaled the finest international coalition ever to be assembled. He lost the next US presidential election, but not because of his policies toward Iraq. Recently, Indonesia and Britain have made peace with Aceh and IRA terrorists respectively, and the US has come to terms with Libya's terrorist-sponsoring leader Muammar Qaddafi. Despite the tired public rhetoric of denial, negotiating with terrorists is the norm in international affairs.
Regrettably, even though we continue to eliminate Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan and other locales, due in part to the collateral damage these strikes produce, there seems to be no shortage of enraged Muslims to take their place. Indeed, the US invasion of Iraq has been judged by many experts as the premier recruiting tool for the global jihadist movement. Simply put, there are more anti-US Muslims willing to use terror to strike at us today than there were on Sept. 11, 2001.
If our goal is to reverse this trend, the question is simple: Are we better off negotiating with Mr. bin Laden? If we can capture or kill him, certainly the US can rightfully claim justice has been served against the perpetrators of 9/11. Because revenge is the sweetest of our dark sweet dreams, bin Laden's demise will bring no small degree of personal satisfaction to many people. But if we kill him with a well-aimed smart bomb, or if he remains in hiding as a living symbol of a growing anti-US resistance in the Muslim world, will the insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan lay down their arms? Leading US government officials have said time and again that bin Laden's death or capture will not engender these results. Thus, if our wisest men have decided that our present policy toward bin Laden will not help reduce the threat of terrorism, what might help? Does our yearning for revenge outweigh the potential value we might gain by negotiating with bin Laden?
If our goal is to roll back terrorism and reduce its global appeal, sooner or later we are going to have to deal directly with terrorists. Even if such negotiations fail, history has shown that a silver lining is often found. In Colombia, the Pastrana administration pursued peace with FARC terrorists only to find that they were false partners. FARC's duplicity revealed to the Colombian people that a military response was necessary, and this energized the Colombian government to legitimately escalate the war.
The same might be true by now engaging with bin Laden. I very much doubt that his offer to negotiate is genuine, but if we cannot make a deal that is acceptable, President Bush can show the world that bin Laden is a bogus partner, thus undermining his undeniable legitimacy in parts of the Muslim world. In the all important battle for global public opinion, the US might be able to use this opportunity to reverse some of the decline we have suffered in Iraq. Ultimately, if negotiations fail, CIA Predator drones and elite military units can again be sent on search and destroy missions against Al Qaeda. By calling to the table bin Laden's truce offer, we do not give up the military option; however, if we play this right, even if negotiations fail, we may have more to gain than to lose by exploring peace.
• Douglas A. Borer, an associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., is the author of "Superpowers Defeated: Vietnam and Afghanistan Compared." The views here are his own.