Symposium—Iraq: A Report Card

 Jamie Glazov


Jamie Glazov is the editor of, an online publication. This symposium took place over the internet, and was published on August 5, 2005. This symposium is reprinted with permission from

Editor’s Note: In its final stages, this symposium took a tragic and horrifying turn as one of our panelists, and a dear friend, Steven Vincent, was kidnapped and murdered in Basra, Iraq. Our hearts are crushed and we have abruptly terminated this symposium at the place during which we heard the horrible news. Our prayers are with Steven and with his family.

Where does the U.S. stand in the war in Iraq? Are we winning? Did we do the right thing by going in and have we pursued the best military strategy while there? Where are we headed? How do we best win this war?

To give a report card and policy recommendations for the future war effort, Frontpage Symposium has assembled a distinguished panel of experts. We are honored to be joined today by:

Jeffrey White, a retired U.S. government intelligence analyst who is the Berrie Defense Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, specializing in the military and security affairs of Iraq and the Levant. He has written extensively on the war and insurgency in Iraq, and has frequently appeared in the media as an expert on the subject. He serves as a defense and intelligence issues consultant for several major defense contractors and government agencies.

Turi Munthe, the Associate Fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the Royal United Services Institute, and a consultant editor in Politics at IBTauris Publishers. Before joining RUSI, he founded and was Editor-in-Chief of the Beirut Review of Books. He has lived in Syria and Israel, and has traveled extensively in the region. In 2002, he published the best-selling Saddam Hussein Reader. He has written on politics, art architecture and fiction--in French and English.

Karl Zinsmeister, Editor-in-Chief of the national political magazine The American Enterprise ( He has spent several months over the last two and a half years embedded with U.S. troops carrying out combat operations in Baghdad, Fallujah, Abu Ghraib, the Shiite south, and other parts of Iraq. He has written three books about the Iraq War: Boots on the Ground: A Month with the 82nd Airborne in the Battle for Iraq, and Dawn Over Baghdad: How the U.S. Military is Using Bullets and Ballots to Remake Iraq, and Combat Zone: True Tales of GIs in Iraq. He is currently producing a major film on soldiering, called “Warriors,” for broadcast on PBS in 2006—for which he was filming in Iraq in May.

Steven Vincent, a freelance journalist who has made two self-funded trips to Iraq and wrote In the Red Zone: A Journey Into The Soul of Iraq to recount his experiences. He is currently in Basra where he has been living for the last two months and plans to stay another two, writing articles to finance his stay and researching a book about the city.

Cliff May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, he is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute created immediately following 9/11/01 that focuses on terrorism and democratization.

Jacob Helibrunn, an LA Times editorial writer and author of a forthcoming book on neoconservatism.

FP: Jeffrey White, Turi Munthe, Karl Zinsmeister, Steven Vincent, Cliff May and Jacob Helibrunn, welcome to “Frontpage Symposium.” It is a pleasure to have you here with us.

Karl Zinsmeister, let’s begin with you. Let’s start with a report grade. Give a letter grade for the overall war effort so far (i.e., A-, C+ , etc.) and explain why.

Zinsmeister: I’m going to shock people by giving it an A. I know that violates the conventional wisdom but I take a historian’s view of the war, and I believe that when people look back 10, 20, 50 years from now, it won’t be so striking that something blew up yesterday (everybody forgets how ugly things were at this same point in WWII, the Civil War, the American Revolution). What will impress over the long view is how the fundamentals had been changed in Iraq just 27 months after U.S. forces arrived.

My latest stint was for a month in May (on the streets of Baghdad with patrols, not in the artificial bubble of the international hotels), and I have no illusions about the continuing dangers there, or the fact that most of Iraqi society remains horrendously damaged from Saddam’s predation.

But the astonishing fact is that a surprisingly patient and tolerant politics is breaking out all over Iraq. The enthusiasm for self-rule is genuine, and great forbearance is being shown by ordinary people, despite the provocations of the nihilists who blow up residents and public services every day.

In Iraq and the rest of the Middle East--which have been snakepits for all of our lives--this is rather miraculous.

FP. Ok add an A for me and we have two A’s now. Miraculous is indeed the operative word. Bush went in and overthrew a fascist dictator, liberated twenty-five million Iraqis from a vicious and sadistic fascist regime, and has planted the seed of freedom and hope in a region ruled by tyranny, extremism, terrorism and despair.

Mr. Vincent, care to add another A to our report card?

Vincent: With respects to you and Karl, Jamie, I have to give the war effort a B-. Judging the conflict by Saddam’s removal—and thank Allah the monster is gone—is setting a pretty low bar. I mean, let’s face it: military-wise Iraq was not Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. Then you have to factor in U.S failures, such as not sealing the borders or halting the looting—not to mention the fact that American military tactics have widely alienated the very people we liberated. Something’s not working right.

But the important point is this: this conflict is not just about killing bad guys, but building a nation. Yes, there is a democratically elected government, but when Baghdad lacks power and water, and the road to the airport is a life-threatening crap shoot, and I can’t leave my hotel here in Basra without Iraqi protection—I can’t see much nation building going on.

Insurgents win by not losing. If they keep Iraqis living in misery, then no matter how many “insurgents” we dispatch to Paradise, Amir Zarqawi gets the prize. In assessing the war effort, then, we must also include the quality of Iraqis’ lives. Want a grade for that? F.

FP. Thanks Mr. Vincent. You are going to give a B- to the Bush administration because the terrorists have wreaked violence and mayhem and made nation building extremely difficult? We are at war. You are judging the Bush administration because there are terrorists trying to destroy Iraq at every turn. You blame America that you can’t leave your hotel. But Mr. Vincent, sorry, you can’t leave your hotel because the terrorists are a threat to you. Blame the terrorists, not America.

Are you going to blame America for suicide bombings as well? Sorry, in my humble opinion, when a suicide bomber blows himself up and kills innocent people and destroys the “quality” of life, the perpetrator is the suicide bomber--and the Islamist enemy that has sent him--not America. When al Zarqawi chops a head off of a hostage, the person who should be blamed for the dead hostage is al Zarqawi, not America. Am I missing something here?

An F to America for the quality of Iraqis’ lives? The terrorists are waging war on the country and doing everything in their power to destroy the quality of life. We need to blame the terrorists for that, not the side that is sacrificing its young boys and girls to give Iraq liberty and to nurture and protect its growth. The premise here is the height of the pathology of anti-Americanism--blaming America for what the terrorists are doing. Isn’t it?

Mr. May go ahead, we have two A’s and a B-.

May: I find it hard to grade the war effort as a whole. The Pentagon, the White House and U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq probably deserve rather different marks.

I think it’s clear that the Pentagon made the mistake of spending recent decades preparing for a war against the Soviet Union--even after the Soviet Union collapsed. Relatively little time and energy was spent planning for what’s called a “small war,” a war against terrorists and insurgents. Special Forces and Marines--the point of the spear for such a war--were given short shrift.

The White House has had three ambitious goals: (1) topple Saddam, (2) eliminate terrorists and quash the insurgency and (3) help Iraqis create a decent society on the ashes of Saddam Hussein’s devastation. But certainly the strength of the insurgency was underestimated. I also believe the Bremer regency was seriously flawed.

That brings us to the troops on the ground. They are learning by doing and it’s a steep--and often lethal--learning curve. But they are willing and able to do what has to be done. They recognize that if the U.S. military should be defeated in Iraq that would represent a strategic catastrophe of immense proportions--and it would be only the first in a series of defeats (as were previous U.S. defeats, e.g., Lebanon 1983 and Mogadishu 1993).

So if I average those grades, I suppose it would be about a B.

FP: OK, a B from Cliff May. But isn’t it a bit unfair to judge the U.S. for failing to see the future? These criticisms are easy to make in hindsight, no?

OK. Jeffrey White, your turn.

White: At the end of the day historians will judge, but for now I think it is a very mixed bag. Certainly the conventional phase of the war was well planned and executed, but just as certainly the follow-on phase was not. The insurgency “caught us on our back foot” and we have yet to catch up. It has taken a long time to figure out what we are facing in Sunni Arab Iraq, and our ability to deal with it is still hampered by problems in assessing the nature and scope of the insurgency.

We have never had enough troops in Iraq. We have rushed the deployment of Iraqi security forces, and we have consistently overplayed their ability to do the job where it counts--in Sunni Arab Iraq. We have seen “turning” or “tipping” points that were not there. At various times senior officials have proclaimed the insurgency broken, on its knees, or in its last throes. The insurgency is now persistent, pervasive, and embedded. At best it will take a long time to suppress it to a level consistent with our objectives. So I am thinking a grudging C overall.

FP: The lowest grade so far. Incidentally, I don’t understand why the terrorists are called “insurgents.” Many of these terrorists are foreign fighters invading the sovereignty of Iraq, coming to kill innocents and to wreak havoc and chaos to destroy the chances of democracy.

Munthe: On the practicalities of the war effort, I’m with Jeffrey White all the way, so that’s another C. I’d add (echoing Cliff May) that Paul Bremer’s de-Baathification campaign, and his decision to disband the army, were heavily criticized at the time and rightly continue to be seen as seminal steps on the way to many of the problems facing the Coalition today. So a C there too.

But perhaps we should also grade the broader achievements of the war in Iraq, and here we face a paradox. On the one hand, Operation Iraqi Freedom has offered proof that democracy need not be alien to the region, and it has fostered democratic coups from Lebanon through Georgia to Kyrgyzstan, while heavily bolstering democratic movements from Egypt to Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, there’s no doubt at all that the invasion and occupation of Iraq has played straight into the hands of international terrorists. The UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office began planning for terrorist fall-out from the Iraq war before the war even began, and they predict we’ll be seeing the after-effects for a decade at least. So between a starred A for promoting democracy, and--writing from a shell-shocked London--a low E for abetting radicalization, I’m back to a C average.

FP: Jacob Heilbrunn?

Heilbrunn: I’m worried. When the insurgency began, I figured it would be short-lived. Wrong, wrong, wrong. It’s become clear that we’re stuck in a counter-insurgency war that we have little appetite for waging and that we were totally unprepared for. Would it have helped to plan for it? The pessimist in me says it wouldn’t have. Iraqi society, or, more broadly, the Arab world is stuck in a rut that U.S. military power cannot pull it out of. But who knows? The blunt fact is that the war remains inconclusive and I refuse to join the ranks of those who think it’s a lost cause. It isn’t. At least not yet. What I glean from reports is that some semblance of ordinary life is returning (or emerging for the first time?) in Iraq. So my heart is with Karl Zinsmeister. My head is trying to be. I give a B.

FP: Karl Zinsmeister back to you. Give us a few rejoinders to our panelists’ analysis to why they have given lower grades than you have.

Zinsmeister: It’s so easy for us from our armchairs to take for granted what has been accomplished. I don’t mean unseating Saddam; that’s the least of our achievements. I mean things like winning the Battle of Najaf. Do you have any idea what was involved in crushing Moktada Sadr’s Mahdi Army last year? Mess up Najaf and you’ve got more than a bunch of revanchist Baathists and jihadists fighting you--the country’s Shiite majority would have turned against the U.S., and Iraq would have been lost. This was exactly the kind of door-to-door, culturally sensitive, urban war that people said the heavy U.S. Army didn’t know how to fight, and couldn’t win.

Well guess what? Our forces surgically killed several thousand of Sadr’s fighters, without hurting the innocent people and holy shrines his forces had secreted themselves amongst, and scared Sadr himself so much he decided to retire as a guerrilla and start a political career. Which didn’t go over so well with his fellow Iraqis. When I debated American pessimists at this time last year they were insisting Sadr was the most popular man in Iraq. Oops. His faction (which participated fully in the voting) won a grand total of three seats in Parliament in the election.

That’s how a righteous military force and a democratic political system marginalize a fanatic. There is NO previous tradition of this kind of triumph of political moderation anywhere in the Middle East. We are ingrates and fools if we don’t appreciate the significance of accomplishments like this, and recognize that as they stick and multiply, the Arab world will gradually become a radically different place. Today’s Arab spring is real. Is it complete? Of course not; there are miles and miles to go. But can anyone point to any previous diplomatic, economic, military, political, religious, or pharmacological initiative that did even a tenth of what our Afghan and Iraq liberations have already inspired from Libya to Lebanon to Kuwait to Kyrgyzstan--the globe’s most heartbreaking crescent for all of our adult lives?

No fair saying Middle Eastern extremists are now blowing up bombs in the West; they were doing that before.

And no fair saying Iraq is a dangerous, broken-down country; it is--and the latest good polls show that 7 out of 10 Iraqis think their country is heading in the right direction.

FP: Mr. Vincent?

Vincent: Jamie, before pulling the rhetorical wagons around the Bush Administration, go back and look over my first response. I’ll try it again:

We are at war in Iraq. The criteria for success in this conflict--whether we like it or not--is the quality of Iraqis’ life. (Never again should the U.S. get involved in a war where victory is determined by a third party.) Terrorists know this. Therefore, they strive to insure that the quality of Iraqi life is miserable. Miserable Iraqis = failing war effort. (I gave our effort a B- because of Saddam’s capture, and the hope Iraqis still maintain for the future.)

And forgive me Karl, but praising America’s undeniable military prowess is a bit like the old saw involving the doctor who crows that “the operation was a success, but the patient died.” Sure, the surgery was brilliant, the surgery team removed the cancer, but all manner of infectious diseases afflicted the patient in the post-op period. (And again, forgive me, but here in Basra, Mookie Sadr is hands-down the most popular public figure outside of Sistani.)

It must be frustrating to the Punditry to realize that even with all the American blood and treasure expended in this war, the effort hinges on whether an Iraqi housewife feels safe enough to walk to the market. Or parents can let their children go to school without fear of kidnappers. Or businessmen can bid on a construction project without bribing the local elected authorities, religious party members and tribal gangs. Not all these issues are America’s responsibility, but all of them are our problems.

You can blame terrorists all you want for ruining Iraq, but at the end of the day, it’s our responsibility to make things right--or at least get Iraqis to do the job themselves. Oh, and Jamie? You better feel sorry I can’t leave my Basra hotel without Iraqi protection--because last year I could. Six months after the January 30th elections, lawlessness in this city is on the rise, whether by Iranian agents, rogue policemen or opportunistic tribal gangs. Hmmm, considering the bang-up job the Brits are doing here, I think I’ll lower my estimation of the war effort to a C+.

FP: Sheesh. Okay Steven, I’m almost afraid what will happen in the next round of this discussion.

OK, seriously though, I hope you take care over there. Our disagreement is over the fine line of who gets the blame for what. To blame Americans for the fact that there are myriad radical Muslims flocking to Iraq to make sure that women don’t get the right to self-determination and to make certain that humans don’t start thinking more about enjoying life than about pursuing death. . . that should not lower the grade we give to the American liberation and war effort. Mr. May?

May: Actually, I think we’ve spent enough time grading the effort. In the final analysis, whether we’ve been under-achieving or over-achieving is irrelevant.

We’re in the middle of a war. It’s hard to know quite how you’re doing in the middle of a war. What marks would you have given FDR and Churchill in 1942 after the Japanese captured Singapore, Java and Rangoon and after Rommel took Tobruk?

Maybe a C?

The point is this war against Islamist fascism has to be fought and we have to defeat our enemies. Nothing less will do.

Our enemies are using terrorism, a weapon we--for moral reasons--will not use.

For us, there are many rules--regarding human rights, privacy, respect for other religious faiths--that we must scrupulously abide by.

For our enemies, there are no rules whatsoever.

So this is an asymmetrical war and that makes winning harder but it doesn’t make winning impossible.

The hardest part will be staying resolute and determined. The terrorists use suicide bombers and IEDs not to win great military victories on the battlefield but to demoralize the folks back home, to make us lose our will to fight.

If they do that, by definition, they will have defeated us. That can’t be permitted to happen.

FP: Mr. White?

White: I do not think we get very far by trying to stick a “terrorist” label on the insurgency. What we are looking at is a composite insurgency, one that combines elements of “resistance” against the “occupation,” armed opposition to the Iraqi government, and terrorism, largely but not completely driven by foreign Jihadis and their Iraqi allies. Labeling all those involved in the insurgency “terrorists” is both inaccurate and dysfunctional. Precision in language is critical to precision in thought. We cannot get it right in Iraq if we employ sloppy or emotive language.

We have been through “regime dead-enders,” are now using the nonsensical “anti-Iraqi forces,” and slap a terrorist label on people who are determined, ruthless, and inventive in prosecuting their wars. We also need to stop characterizing what is happening in overly simple ways. The insurgents do not attack indiscriminately, as I heard on TV this morning. They know who they are attacking and killing, sometimes by name, as in targeted killings of “collaborators.” These attacks are the antithesis of indiscriminate action. Violent, sometimes tragic, death and injury are what we see, but they serve various insurgent operational goals. Again, we need to be clear in our minds about what is going on. Let’s start thinking clinically for a change.

FP: Calling the terrorists “insurgents” implies that this is some kind of internal rebellion against an occupation, a slant on the Iraq war that the Left and the terrorists just love. What is happening is that Iraq has been freed from tyranny and an effort is being made to build a civil and democratic society. Foreign fighters are coming in from all over the world, invading the sovereignty of this country, to wreak violence and mayhem. A Muslim warrior coming from Syria or Saudi Arabia to blow himself up amongst Iraqi civilians in not an “insurgent”; he is a terrorist.

The terrorists are of course not attacking “indiscriminatingly” in the sense that they do not blow themselves up alone in a field somewhere. Obviously they have a target in mind. But we use the word “indiscriminately” to tell one crucial truth: that their targets include innocent civilians in all walks of life and that this is their inspiration rather than regret.

Mr. Munthe?

Munthe: “Insurgents,” as you rightly stress, implies that there is some kind of internal rebellion against an occupation Well, there is. From my sources on the ground, I gather that almost all the successful “military” style operations against Coalition troops in Baghdad and its environs are being run by that “internal rebellion.” Your “foreign terrorists” (which exist, and in large numbers) are first-graders when it comes to military planning, and are mostly used as kamikaze fodder by internal elements who have spent decades in what was once the largest operational army in the world (with over a million troops). Zarqawi’s kidnappers and their ilk are unfortunately a fraction of the enemy. Some of us, though perhaps not FrontPage, will be pleased to hear that, along with the ethereal Left and “the terrorists,” both the U.S. and UK military now make a clear distinction between foreign and internal enemies, and are running their strategy accordingly.

One good reason to make that distinction is because it directly impacts on Iraqi Freedom’s success. The battle of Najaf has been mentioned earlier: a success by most standards. Its counterpoint, however, is Falluja 1 (April, 2004) and 2 (November 2004). Falluja 1 was an unmitigated fiasco, both militarily and for hearts-and-minds. Falluja 2 ensured the bombed-out shell of the town fell into Coalition hands, and ensured the insurgency--for that is what it was--spread up through Ramadi, Samarra and Baquba to Mosul, with extra fighters pulled from the relatives (family and tribal) of every Iraqi civilian killed as Falluja fell.

Falluja 1 is widely credited with initiating the current stage in fighting, which has seen the very unlikely alliance of foreign terrorists and internal forces, on the principle of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.” Prior to April 2004, Iraqi insurgents (predominantly secular) were dismayed by Zarqawi et al., whom they saw as hijacking their just war. Falluja 2 saw Iraqi insurgents sheltering foreign terrorists as a result of Falluja 1. Unless we get our terms straight, unless we are able to see Iraq for the complexity that it is, the practical implications of our ideological reductionism will turn round and bite us.

FP: Thank you Mr. Munthe. These are crucial and very helpful analyses and points you are making.

We are on two different pages my friend. My disagreement is on what words we use, not on the reality you are describing.

The enemy are terrorists. Period. And we should call them that. Calling them anything less than that is synonymous with us slicing our own wrists.

Yes, I brought up the foreign fighters as an example to make my point. Now that the debate has been extended, let’s focus in on the issue:

Yes, of course there is an “internal rebellion” as well. There are home-grown indigenous terrorists and they are perpetrating much violence, mayhem and murder. So let’s get our terms in order then: Let’s throw the word “insurgents” into the garbage dump where it belongs in the context of the Iraq war and use two basic terms: foreign terrorists and internal terrorists. If you want to improve this a bit and make it more technical, great, let’s do that. Let’s just make sure to keep the word “terrorist” in there though. Or “murderer” if you like.

It also remains debatable who is perpetrating the most violence--the foreign terrorists or the internal terrorists. I am not sure it is a given that the internal terrorists are.

In any case, we are at a war with an evil ideology. Our enemy is bad. We are good. Yes, I know it makes a lot of people cringe to hear language like this and I am sure there are many people who will roll their eyes and scoff when they hear these words. But I really don’t see the complexity in this paradigm. Was there complexity in who was bad and good at Auschwitz, Dachau and Buchenwald?

There is no occupation of Iraq. There is a liberation of Iraq. And the liberation is headed by forces of liberty and democracy that seek to bring peace, prosperity, self-determination and freedom to the Iraqi people. There are also forces that want to enslave Iraqis to a monstrosity of totalitarianism and terror--under forms of Sharia law. These forces engage in acts like suicide bombing--killing innocent people to destroy any possibility of freedom coming to Iraq. These people are terrorists.

The word “insurgent” is a morally neutral term. It could have been used to describe the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. But the Warsaw Ghetto warriors were not terrorists, they were freedom fighters, because they were on the side of good, were fighting evil, and also did not blow themselves up alongside innocent men, woman and children.

I have a question for the panel: When a person straps a bomb on to himself and blows himself up in an area where he knows full well there are innocent civilians, including infants, is he a terrorist? Is he the “bad” one in a situation where we can have the moral clarity to say: Our side is good and we have the moral high ground on this individual and on the ideology and side he represents?

Like our confrontation with Communism and fascism, our war with Islamism today is no different. It is a confrontation with a pernicious totalitarian and terrorist evil. It is a confrontation with a death-cult ideology. Once again, the forces of liberty confront the forces of despotism. And we must call our enemies what they are. And when we insist on calling nihilist human-hating and life-hating monsters, who kill themselves along with innocent men, women and babies in carriages, “insurgents” rather than who they truly are, that is when we blur the crucial moral distinctions between us and start losing this war.

FP: Mr. Heilbrunn go ahead.

Heilbrunn: Jamie, as ever you are the agent provocateur par excellence. But I think we need to be careful about invoking the Third Reich and the Warsaw ghetto. I’m not sure that the Warsaw ghetto uprising was about freedom so much as a last, desperate rebellion that showed the Nazis--who were shocked by the ferocity of the fighting--that the Jews would not submit passively to their murderers and that they would retain their dignity, even if it was ultimately a hopeless struggle.

Of course the nihilism of the Islamic fascists and the Nazis isn’t dissimilar. But Nazi ideology didn’t really have enough time to soak through the German population. My sense is that the Japanese were much more fanatical than the Germans. Indeed, I wonder if these militants aren’t most similar to the Japanese Kamikaze pilots--the mingling of religiosity and warrior ideals seems closer to the Japanese right. To some extent, of course, all of these movements have strong similarities. (Didn’t Saddam have Stalin’s texts for bedtime reading?)

If I’m digressing here, Jamie, you have only yourself to blame.

Let’s cut to the chase: I’m not sure that historical analogies are of much use. The problem with the World War II analogies is that the Japanese bombed us. Now, unless you believe in the myth that Saddam was involved with 9/11, Bush clearly launched a preemptive war against Iraq. Given the fears of WMD and Saddam’s bellicose history and the impulse to democratize the Middle East, I think the case for taking out Saddam was, and remains, strong. But not everyone agrees. This is not like World War II in the sense that opponents of the Iraq venture can, and do, make a strong case that this is like the old Talleyrand chestnut about an action being worse than a crime; it was a blunder.

That’s why we are in as much a political as a military battle. How do we define military success? When is it safe (for peaceful Iraqis) for the U.S. to begin pulling out? My prediction: if Bush can’t show some kind of progress by the midterm elections, if some modicum of order isn’t created in Iraq, he’s headed for big political trouble.

FP: Thank you Mr. Heilbrunn.

Just to clarify: I am not making any kind of analogy or comparison between our terror war and the Third Reich in terms of any historical reality or situation. I am sure there are many similarities and differences that one can find in some kind of historical comparative study, etc.

My main point, and why I raise the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, is that we must have moral clarity when we are at war with evil. The word “insurgent” is morally neutral. It could have been used to describe the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. I am not talking about whether those heroes had realistic hope or not. I am emphasizing that they were good and that their occupiers were evil. So what I am saying is that, if we are to have moral clarity in this war, we do not use the same word that can be used to describe the Warsaw Ghetto fighters to describe today’s suicide bombers. If an individual straps himself with bombs and blows himself up alongside innocent men, women and infants, he is a terrorist and we must call him and all others like him terrorists. By using the word “insurgents” our media blurs the line between civilization and nihilism and between good and evil.

I honestly don’t understand what is so complicated about this.

And by the way, to refer to the Saddam-Osama link as a “myth” is quite strange in light of all the recent evidence that substantiates the existence of the connection, which authors such as Steven Hayes have already effectively confirmed.

Well, Mr. Zinsmeister, it’s become quite hot in here. What do you have to say?

Zinsmeister: Can we all agree that the Middle East has been a danger to its neighbors and a hellhole for the majority of its citizens for our entire lifetimes? So let’s not be shocked that social, economic, and political conditions there remain ugly. This is the worst governed part of the globe since WWII. In just three years the U.S. has changed many of the fundamentals. Is the region now whistling Zip-a-dee Doo-Dah? Hardly. But please remind me which other initiative of the last 100 years did more to humanize and defang the Middle East? A non-medieval Afghanistan, a self-governing Iraq, a democratic Palestine, a Syria-free Lebanon, female-emancipation in Kuwait--not bad for three years work.

The extreme impatience for paradisal results in Iraq and elsewhere is completely ahistorical, and juvenile. As one U.S. soldier said:

Americans seem to kind of want this McDonald’s war, where you drive up, you order it, you pay for it, you go to the next window and get a democracy. That’s not the way it works. Freeing a long-oppressed people takes a lot of effort; it takes time.

A 27-year-old GI can understand this but our academics and politicians can’t?

Historically, eliminating a ruthless terror insurgency takes a decade or two. It’s like eradicating smallpox; you have to squeeze and squeeze, and show great patience. As evidence that we’re making headway, let me offer three things I discovered in my latest month in the country:

1) Iraqi military units, which used to regularly fall apart, have not once failed in battle since the Jan ’05 election.

2) Having gotten crushed every time they conducted a military operation against U.S. and Iraqi forces, Iraq’s terrorists have basically given up on trying, I was surprised to learn. I saw with my own eyes the truth of General William Webster’s July 8 pronouncement that “the ability of these insurgents to conduct sustained, high-intensity operations” has essentially been “eliminated.” As a result, they have been reduced almost exclusively to suicide attacks, most of them against innocent civilians at soft targets.

3) The upshot? It is now the INSURGENCY that most Iraqis consider to be the outside invasion force. Zarqawi and his jihadists, along with his local Sunni enablers, are now LOATHED by the average Iraqi, not supported. And that’s how you eventually win a guerrilla war.

FP: Mr. Vincent?

Vincent: What’s the question? What our personal views of the “insurgency” might be? Then I must admit I found Mr. White’s comments a bit chilling. Perhaps I’ve been in Iraq too long, but they sounded to me like a doctor telling a cancer patient his tumor is a form of “resistance” against the “occupation” of his body. And though Mr. Munthe is correct in parsing the jihadists from the Saddamites, his points strike me as discriminations that make little difference beyond tactical considerations. Emotions--outrage, contempt, wrath--are exactly what we need to carry on the fight against the anti-Iraqi terrorists.

These are after all, cold-blooded killers who propose no programs, no alternatives, no vision of a “better” Iraq. Are the Sunni paramilitaries anti-colonial “patriots?” Why, then, do they kill 20 times more Iraqi citizens than U.S. soldiers? Why don’t they join with the Kurds and Shia in a national government and ask the U.S. to leave? What is the point of their bloodshed? From Tikrit to Basra, I have asked pro-fascist Sunnis these questions and have never received an adequate answer. Perhaps its time we consider that there is no answer, that the killing has no point, beyond archaic notions of tribal honor and revenge.

We want to believe that the paramilitaries have some sort of rational--or at least reasonable goal, as if they were continuations of the anti-colonial guerrillas of the last century. But those days are gone. The true horror of the war being waged against Iraq--whether by Baathi-fascists or Islamofascists--is its utter pointlessness, a fact that robs the dead of even the dignity of martyrdom. This is terrorism. And the proper response is “clinical” analysis, coupled with Old Testament wrath.

FP: Mr. Vincent, you raise a crucial theme and I would argue the most important theme: there is no rational reason for the bloodshed perpetrated by our enemy in this terror war. As Paul Berman has shrewdly noted in his book Terror and Liberalism. Islamism, like its cousins Fascism and Communism, is a totalitarian death cult that engages in mass death and suicide for no rational reason. It is a veneration of death for the sake of death.

Berman profoundly captures the essence of Bolshevism’s death cult:

And, very quickly, Lenin’s movement, having seized power in St. Petersburg in 1917, spread all over Europe and around the world. Everywhere the new movement displayed a weirdly frenetic dynamism, beyond anything that could have been seen in the 19th century. It was an emotional forcefulness that derived, ultimately, from the movement’s cheerful willingness to put Bolshevism’s enemies to death, and an equally cheerful willingness to put to death random crowds whose views on Boshevism were utterly unknown, and a further willingness to put to death the Bolsheviks themselves (no one has ever murdered more Communists than the Communist Party of the Soviet Union), and a willingness to accept one’s own death, too--all for the best of reasons. The idea was, in Boudelaire’s phrase, to whip and kill the people for the good of the people. And the whipping and killing got underway. (Paul Berman, Terror and Liberalism, p.43).

This same impulse and instinct, as Berman points out, is what drives Islamism as well, for it too is a death cult. And it explains the Ayatollah Khomeini’s cult of death just as it explains the terrorists’ cult of death in Iraq.

The Left, of course, will look for rational reasons:

Oh, they are blowing themselves up alongside innocent men, women and children because they are oppressed by American imperialism and capitalism and they can’t take it anymore.

Unfortunately, Stalin’s, Mao’s and Pol Pot’s killing fields in the 20th century, which spawned tens of millions of human corpses, were diabolical phenomena that took on lives of their own, and their insatiable thirst for human blood existed independently of any emotion or idea that American “imperialism” (real or imagined) could have possibly caused.

Until our side understands that when, in the enemy camp today, there are fathers and mothers who cheer with intoxicated ecstasy when their children blow themselves amongst innocent people, that this horrifying reality has something to do with a dark and evil impulse related to a mass movement of death, rather than with a simple logical explanation that we can point a finger to, until then we will be helpless and we will be losing this war. It will be like us sitting around during the Nazi death camps, watching the trains taking the Jews to Auschwitz, Dachau and Buchenwald, and arguing:

This can be easily stopped, we just have to figure what the Jews did that hurt Adolph, to remedy his hurt, and then this will go away.

Mr. May go ahead.

May: The inclination of those on what might be called the post-humanitarian left to romanticize, even the worst murderers and thugs, never ceases to fascinate me.

As long as the killers manage to include some Americans among the slaughtered or, failing that, shout anti-American phrases, they will appeal to a certain species of European and American political theorist.

Surely, the precise definition of a terrorist is one who intentionally murders civilians in pursuit of political goals. Terrorism is a strategy that seeks not to seize cities or even airports or even hills, it seeks merely to destroy the enemy’s will to fight, which is a reasonable definition of defeat. Some of those who have been so defeated will, of course, show the enemy undue respect. I suppose it is logical for that to happen; still, it is rather sad to see.

Various ideologies justify and drive the use of terrorism. In Iraq, the two we’re fighting are radical Islamism and Baathism. Both are profoundly anti-democratic and totalitarian. Both are supremacist but whereas Baathists believe it is Arabs who are entitled to global domination, radical Islamists believe it is Muslims who must and shall rule.

One can easily see the influence of Nazism and Communism. The Nazis, of course, believed Aryans were destined to glory; Communists gave the leading role to the proletariat.

To talk about an Iraqi “resistance” is nonsense and insulting to the memory of the French Resistance and other legitimate resistance movements.

It also is ludicrous to speak of Iraqis “collaborating” with a freely elected government that represents the will of about 80 percent of the Iraqi people. (There is no Kurdish insurgency and there no longer is a Shia insurgency--together those groups represent all but about 20 percent of the population.)

These ideas are so self-evident that only an intellectual could fail to grasp them.

I would disagree also with the notion that the “homegrown insurgents” are perpetrating most of the violence. Most of the deaths result from suicide bombings; most of those are carried out by foreigners. The local insurgents may be building and planting Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and leaving them along the roadsides. Such tactics are merely a form of lethal vandalism.

White: Well let’s see. What I want when I go to a doctor is someone who gets emotional and inaccurately diagnoses my problem. It really does not matter much if it’s a brain tumor or a boil; that boil sure is obvious and aggravating.

A few facts might also be useful. Most American troops are being killed by IED attacks, not suicide bombers. I doubt that the Marines, who lost five of their comrades to IEDs over the weekend, see this as “vandalism.” It is an effective and low risk tactic for the insurgents, and serves them well. Most suicide bombings are precision attacks on high value targets. Most mass casualty producing incidents are not against “Iraqis.” They are specifically against the Shia. The insurgents are killing more ISF than the ISF is killing insurgents. Insurgent capabilities in Baghdad have not been “eliminated.” Serious incidents began within a few days of Gen. Webster’s comment. Iraqi politicians are not “philosopher-kings” yearning to spread Jeffersonian democracy to the people. These are not the Founding Fathers of the United States, or the drafters of our constitution. They are largely a collection of ethnic, sectarian, and tribal partisans, and political opportunists. There has been no grand compromise on the political future of Iraq. I recommend that everyone look at the data and the history, not yesterday’s news report or today’s statement by a coalition official.

“Resistance” and “collaboration” are terms in use by the insurgents. It is how they, and many others in the Arab world, see it. It is silly to deny or ignore this, if we want to deal with the problem effectively. As an aside, a core element, perhaps the core element, of the French resistance was the Communist underground. The fighters of the French Resistance were also labeled terrorists by the Germans and the Vichy government.

The year ahead in Iraq is going to be crucial. It will likely be the “tipping period” everyone has been looking for. There are three main pieces that have to fall into place for this to go the way we want: political transformation, including legitimate participation by the Sunnis, must continue; the Iraqi Security forces must demonstrate that they can wage the counterinsurgent campaign more effectively than the insurgents can conduct their insurgency, and the insurgency must be suppressed to a level consistent with political transformation and the growth of the ISF. None of these are sure bets. If you are going to bet on a horse, you need to know a lot more about him than his color. Failure to understand the complex and diverse enemy we are facing, and to understand the progress, or not, of the Iraqi security forces is not going to help us win our gamble in Iraq. So I say again: let’s get clinical.

FP: Yes the Nazis labeled the French Resistance fighters as “terrorists.” The Islamists label the United States as the “Great Satan.” Many radical Muslims believe that Jews are descended from apes and pigs. What’s the point? That the civilized world can’t or shouldn’t call evil by its name because evil calls us bad names too? Am I missing something here?

In any case, Mr. White helpfully raises three main pieces that have to fall into place if we hope to achieve success in Iraq. Could the panel comment on these please?

Mr. Munthe?

Munthe:  . . . symposium proceedings cut off.

FP: News has come in that our panelist and dear friend Steven Vincent has been kidnapped and killed in Basra.

We use the last moments of this symposium to say a prayer for Steven and to send our thoughts, condolences and love to his family.

Let us take a minute of silence for Steven.

Jeffrey White, Turi Munthe, Karl Zinsmeister, Cliff May, and Jacob Helibrunn, I am sorry we had to end under these terrible circumstances. Thank you for joining us.

Steven, thank you for the gift you offered every person you touched. You will be truly missed. We love you and pray for you.

For those who may wish to remember Steven, you may consider making a donation however small, in his memory to: This is an organization working with the people of Iraq and Afghanistan to try and better their lives by buying things like tools for men, sewing machines for women, school supplies and books for kids. Steven was very supportive of their efforts, and donated to them several times.     *


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