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Fighting a Cold War Against Osama bin Laden

by Derek Charles Catsam on Jan 25, 2006

Derek Charles Catsam

Osama bin Laden has fired another rhetorical shot across America’s bow. His latest tape, released last week through Al-Jazeera, blew both hot and cold. He threatened the United States and its allies yet hinted at conciliation. Which part of his message should we believe? A key lesson from America’s last great global struggle provides guidance.

During the early years of the Cold War, Dean Acheson, one of the architects of American foreign policy, concluded that the United States should focus on the Soviet Union’s capabilities, not its intentions. He argued that America should always engage in “negotiation from strength.” So by the time he became President Truman’s secretary of state in 1949, Acheson had adopted a hard-headed attitude recognizing international relations as power politics. Acheson’s sage advice applies today as American leaders assess Osama bin Laden’s latest communication.

Bin Laden’s audio-taped message offered both stick and carrot. The stick is the threat of future catastrophic attacks. The carrot is a proposed “truce.” The issue at hand is America’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. If Acheson were alive today, he would ask which threatened attacks al-Qaida is capable of carrying out. Given the history of bin Laden and his organization, we can assume that his capabilities and his intentions are one and the same. If he’s capable of mounting an attack, he will do so.

By asserting that he knows the Bush administration will not change course, bin Laden has played his hand. And his prediction has proved right — the administration is not going to pull out as the result of a threat nor be tempted by an offer of a truce. Bin Laden expected this response, which leaves the United States in the position of dealing with what we know — bin Laden has made a threat to attack the west. Each time he has made such a threat, he has followed through.

In 1996 bin Laden declared “Holy War” against the United States. In 1998 he expanded and clarified his war edict to include the killing of “Americans and their allies, civilians and military . . . in any country in which it is possible to do it.” What followed were the seemingly forgotten atrocities in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar Es-Salaam, Tanzania, on August 7, 1998, in which 225 lost their lives and thousands were injured, the overwhelming majority of them Africans.

Then there were the never-to-be forgotten attacks of 9-11. Later, radical Islamists tied to al-Qaida or al-Qaida-like organizations claimed responsibility for the catastrophic train bombings in Madrid in March 2004 and the London bombings in July 2005 (before which bin Laden had offered a similar truce). As a general rule, bin Laden, his followers and his imitators followed through on threats.

It’s worth remembering that the Cold War was won over the course of decades, not years. Like Stalin before him, bin Laden is a menace, but radical Islam will continue to pose a threat even when bin Laden goes, as the Soviet Union did after Stalin died. Acheson had developed a plan based on long-range planning, staying the course, and not being fooled by brief diversions from the enemy’s established patterns.

We know what al-Qaida and like-minded groups are capable of. To plan for anything less their following through with their threats would be foolhardy. Dean Acheson recognized this 50 years ago and pushed American policy makers to develop a plan to contain and eventually defeat the Soviets. Osama bin Laden’s record tells us that it is best to heed his warnings and to do the same. 

Derek Catsam is an associate professor of history at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin and a writer for the History News Service. He is the author of "Freedom's Main Line: The Journey of Reconciliation and the Freedom Rides"