TOPICS: Why not test bin Laden’s ‘truce’ offer?

One of the hardest decisions a US president 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 George W. Bush must decide whether to stick to the moribund old cliché “we don’t negotiate with terrorists,” or whether he should use this as an opportunity to redirect global politics along a path that serves US national interests.

Almost all nation-states have negotiated with terrorists. 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. President Reagan was credited for negotiating the release of American hostages with Iran, the leading state-sponsor of terror.

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. 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, there seems to be no shortage of enraged Muslims to take their place instead. There are more anti-US Muslims willing to use terror at us today than there were on September 11, 2001.

If we are to reverse this trend, the question is simple: Are we better off negotiating with Laden? If we can capture or kill him, the US can claim justice has been served against the 9/11 perpetrators. 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, will the insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan lay down their arms? US government officials have said time and again that Laden’s death or capture will not engender these results. Thus, if our wisest men have decided that our present policy toward 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 Laden?

There can be doubts that his offer to negotiate is genuine, but if we cannot make a deal that is acceptable, President Bush can show the world that Laden is a bogus partner, thus undermining his undeniable legitimacy in parts of the Muslim world. The US might be able to use this opportunity to reverse some of the decline we have suffered in Iraq. By calling to the table Laden’s 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. — The Christian Science Monitor