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Retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni Discusses Power and Diplomacy in AAAS Visit
Anthony Zinni, a retired Marine general whose view of the world has been shaped by experiences in the foxhole as well as the corridors of power, sketched a stark but ultimately hopeful view of Iraq’s future during a wide-ranging conversation at AAAS on 6 June.
Zinni had warned prior to the start of the Iraq war that the Bush administration was committing too few troops and was unprepared for the tough job of ensuring social and political order after Saddam Hussein was toppled.
“I saw us about to do something on the cheap that was going to be a disaster in the end,” Zinni told a packed AAAS auditorium in Washington, D.C. He said the United States, as an occupying power, had to “own” all of the difficult issues that arose after the takeover, including protection of key facilities, resumption of basic services, policing of volatile neighborhoods, rebuilding of the economy and helping to form governance structures. “You can’t get into a position where you are partly pregnant in this,” he said.
It could be five to seven years before a reasonably stable Iraq emerges, Zinni said, and in the meantime it may continue to look like Lebanon in the 1980s—a chaotic, violent place that, nonetheless, held together as a nation despite armed conflict by warring factions. Zinni also cautioned that the United States is likely to have some sort of military presence in Iraq—or at nearby bases—for the foreseeable future. “The worst thing we could do is bail out now,” he said.
The salon-style conversation with Zinni was sponsored by AAAS’s Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy as part of its continuing series on security policy. Lincoln P. Bloomfield Jr., who served as assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs from 2001 to 2005, was moderator of the event and questioned Zinni about his long career of public service.
Zinni retired in 2000 as a four-star general after 39 years in the Marine Corps. From 1997 to 2000, he was commander-in-chief of U.S. Central Command (Centcom), with responsibility for Middle East operations and planning. Zinni also served as President George W. Bush’s envoy to the Middle East in 2001 in efforts to broker a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians. He has written a new book, “The Battle for Peace: A Frontline Vision of America’s Power and Purpose.”
Zinni’s views on the use and limits of military power were deeply influenced by his experience in Vietnam, where as a young lieutenant he served as an advisor to a unit of Vietnamese marines. “We wore the uniform of the Vietnamese marines,” he said. “We spoke their language.” Zinni saw the war through the eyes of the Vietnamese people and found that “they did not understand what we were asking them to die for…We were selling them this idea of democracy and a future. They didn’t see it in the roots of their own government.”
The United States is facing similar issues in Iraq, Zinni said, where decisions filter down from the top while much of the chaos and misunderstanding is occurring at ground level. The United States needs to provide Iraqis other tools, beyond the force of arms, to help bring the situation under control, he said. He suggested a concerted information campaign, bringing average Iraqis together to talk about their concerns and ambitions. “This kind of engaging of the people has not been done,” Zinni said. He also suggested a role for international advisory groups and mediators to help the Iraqi government deal with tough issues such as revenue sharing, the role of Islam in society, and the status of militias.
While critical of the way the administration has handled Iraq, Zinni argued that the United States, under both Republican and Democrats, had stumbled in its response to a vastly changed world even before the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks.
In his own experience, and in his conversations with global aid workers, foreign service officers, journalists and representatives of non-governmental organizations, Zinni realized that the world was becoming more disordered after the end of the Cold War. Forces such as globalization in world trade, porous borders, mass migrations and exploding urbanization in the developing world were helping to produce a new and unstable world environment.
Moreover, Zinni argues, the United State was saddled with bloated, bureaucratic government agencies that failed to anticipate the changing world and were not equipped to deal with it. It is time for a “major and drastic” reassessment of our strategy toward the world, he said, with a restructuring of government to create organizations that integrate knowledge and expertise across disparate agencies.
Although Americans are “reluctant imperialists,” as Zinni put it, the United States should not shirk its international role. “I fear we’re drifting back into this point of taking pride in isolationism,” Zinni said. Yet many of the problems that concern average Americans—terrorism, high gas prices, illicit drugs, bird flu and other emerging diseases, illegal immigration—have their roots in unstable regions of the world, Zinni said, and must be tackled at their source.
Regarding terrorism, Zinni called it a tactic that exploits the anger of the young and disaffected. Only when the political, economic and social conditions that give rise to that anger are addressed, he said, will terrorism subside. He warned against trying to assess progress against terrorism in Iraq by simply doing body counts of insurgents killed or terror cells disrupted. “I’ve seen that movie,” Zinni said. “It’s called ‘Vietnam.’”
Zinni stressed the need for partnerships and diplomatic cooperation in addressing problems in Iraq and elsewhere. He spoke admiringly of President George H.W. Bush’s patience in building a multi-national coalition prior to the first Gulf War in 1991. The effort by the current Bush administration to broker a diplomatic settlement with Iran over its nuclear program is a welcome development, Zinni said. “I think it’s a good approach.”
Asked what role he saw for young scientists in the Pentagon, Zinni said that many military reformers had pushed for a high-tech fighting force that could exploit the advantages of improved communications, non-lethal weapons and precision-guided bombs and missiles.
But in the mountains of Afghanistan and the neighborhoods of Baghdad, the high-tech military runs up against the reality of “boots-on-the-ground” combat. Zinni and others have cautioned Pentagon officials not to over-emphasize the value of sophisticated weaponry.
“My son, a Marine officer, served in Afghanistan,” Zinni said. When he returned from his tour, Zinni picked him up at the airport, slapped him on the back and asked: What did you learn in Afghanistan? “I learned how to pack a mule,” Zinni’s son responded.
“Technology didn’t offer him that much,” Zinni said, in the pursuit of combatants in the mountains of Afghanistan. “You are going to have this remarkably diverse military,” he said. “At one end, it’s going to be the technology. And at the other end it’s going to be, for lack of a better term, the human skills that are going to be needed, because that’s the kind of world we face out there.”
8 June 2006