May 25, 2004 | Scripps Howard News Service

Victory, Stalemate or Defeat? That’s the Real Debate

In World War II, Americans sought victory. President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill would accept nothing less than the unconditional surrender of the totalitarian regimes against which they fought.

A few years later in Korea, the U.S. did accept less – an armistice. President Eisenhower preserved the independence of the southern half of the Korean Peninsula, but the north was left in the hands of totalitarian extremists who, more than 50 years later, continue to oppress the people of that land and to threaten Americans.

The War in Vietnam ended without victory and without even a real truce. It ended with the defeat of the United States. Still, in retrospect, Vietnam can be seen as one battle in the long, global conflict against Communist totalitarianism. And in the final years of the 20th century, the Cold War ended when American pressure, and Communism's own internal contradictions, brought down the Soviet empire.

Today, amid all the rhetoric and posturing, we are really debating whether to fight for victory,  accept a stalemate, or resign ourselves to defeat in Iraq and in the wider war against Jihadi terrorism and totalitarianism. 

To be sure, some people separate Iraq from the broader conflict. They argue that there is no proof Saddam Hussein was involved with the many acts of terrorism carried out against Americans between the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 and the second in 2001 (though evidence suggests he may have been). They argue that Saddam had no ties to al Qaeda (more precisely, the extent and nature of Saddam's ties to al Qaeda remain sketchy).

Whatever the truth, this fact is now certain: Saddam loyalists in Iraq have made common cause with international Jihadi leaders.

Would this alliance have come about had President Bush not toppled Saddam? Or did the President make a country that was not a terrorist threat into one that now is? The answer can be determined by examining the background of the leader of the foreign Jihadis in Iraq: Abu Musab al-Zarkawi, the terrorist who beheaded American Nicholas Berg.

Once a commander of the anti-American forces in Afghanistan, Zarkawi lost a leg in battle with U.S. forces in March 2002. He fled to Iraq where Saddam provided him with medical treatment, including an artificial limb — not a favor Saddam did for just anybody.

A few months later, Zarkawi was back at work. In October 2002, he organized the assassination of American diplomat Lawrence Foley in Amman.

Zarkawi remained in Iraq, assisting terrorists at a remote camp run by Ansar al-Islam, a group closely associated with al-Qaeda. Terrorists trained at the camp have been arrested in Britain, France, Georgia and Chechnya.

Zarkawi is among the most dangerous terrorists in the world today – he is a specialist in chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction. He was reputedly the mastermind of a series of suicide bombings in Casablanca in May 2003, the bombing of Turkish synagogues in November 2003, the attacks against Sh'ia worshippers in Baghdad and Karbala in March of this year (he hates Shi'a at least as much as he hates Kurds, Jews and Christians), and the Madrid train bombings that same month.

He claimed responsibility for an abortive chemical weapons attack against Jordan's secret service headquarters last month (the tons of chemicals may have come from Syria or Iraq) and he's been implicated in a plot to bomb the upcoming NATO summit in Istanbul in June.

Earlier this year, Kurdish intelligence intercepted a letter sent by Zarkawi to bin Laden. In it, Zarkawi outlined his plan to foil the American-led Coalition's mission by filling Iraq with “the perfume of fragrant blood spilled on behalf of God.” 

Knowing all this, it is no longer possible to seriously argue that Iraq, under Saddam, was not a base for international terrorism; nor is it possible to seriously argue that fighting Zarkawi in Iraq is not part of the global War on Terrorism.

The most you could say is that perhaps, as with Vietnam, an American defeat in Iraq would merely mean a battle lost in a war still to be won. But that's doubtful. Even at his worst, Ho Chi Minh never intended to follow Americans home and murder their children. Zarkawi means to do exactly that — as do all Islamist totalitarian terrorists. 

No, if Americans lose the will to fight in Iraq it is probable that we will not have the determination to prevail in the wider war. 

That, too, would follow a pattern. In recent decades, Jihadi terrorists have repeatedly forced the U.S. to retreat – for example, from Beirut in 1983 and from Somalia in 1993. Those retreats convinced people like Saddam, bin Laden and Zarkawi that America is like the World Trade Towers – it may look tall and strong but hit it hard and it will collapse.

Americans, Zarkawi wrote to bin Ladin, “are the most cowardly of God's creatures. They are an easy quarry, praise be to God. We ask God to enable us to kill and capture them to sow panic among those behind them.”

Whether you were for or against the decision to topple Saddam a year ago, imagine the consequences were the U.S. to withdraw before defeating Zarkawi, were the U.S. to retreat once again, to abandon the Iraqis – or leave it to the “international community” to defend them from the international terrorists in their midst.

You can bet Zarkawi and bin Laden are imagining precisely that.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies a policy institute focusing on terrorism.