Notes of a talk by General Tony Zinni

Speaker: General Anthony C. Zinni, USMC (retired)
Place: Shaknov Conference Center, CNA Corp., Alexandria, VA
Date: 13 April 2006
Moderator: Dr. Harlan Ullman, CNA
Notes by: Dr. H. H. Gaffney, CNA, and Mr. William D. O'Neil


Zinni began by stating that his remarks were on the record, and that in general he does not speak off the record.

The origins of his book (The Battle for Peace—with co-author Tony Koltz, just published by Palgrave Macmillan) go back to 1989 when he had been selected for brigadier general and had been assigned to EUCOM (U.S. European Command). He and his fellow newly-selected generals in the Capstone course went to Berlin just as the Berlin Wall was coming down. They had come equipped only with their continuing Cold War questions.  They couldn’t believe the Cold War was truly and finally over! They took an impromptu tour to East Berlin, passing through the unmanned Checkpoint Charlie. They saw that the main street there was a Potemkin village and behind it was a return to the 1950s. They visited a Soviet caserne where a lieutenant running a small museum seemed delighted to have visitors. Upon their return, upon passing through the Berlin Wall, their driver broke out a sledge hammer and invited them to break off chips off the Wall. Later they talked to General Burleson at the EUCOM HQ in Stuttgart, and as they raised each Cold-War-related question, he told them, “It’s over!”

Over the next two years, the U.S. reduced its forces in Europe drastically. There were even questions as to whether NATO should continue. Everything was changing too fast. But Jack Galvin, SACEUR (Supreme Allied Commander in Europe) at the time, wanted to adapt to it.

As Deputy J-5 at EUCOM, he (Zinni) was active. They had a crisis action staff to cope with a series of events. It was not the New World Order that Bush Senior had proclaimed. There was no peace dividend. The world was falling apart.

Then he went to Somalia and to the Kurdish territory in Iraq. We had missed something: the collapse of the Soviet Union disrupted order. Neither the U.S. nor the USSR was buying off dictators or warlords anymore. So countries collapsed, as in Somalia. Went he went there, he could see lots of U.S. and Soviet equipment rusting at the sides of the roads. The collapse of the Soviet Union meant the lid was taken off conflict.

Other forces were also in play, especially the globalization of production. He encountered the strange entity of nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs—there were 120 of them in Somalia. Mighty forces were emerging in these countries: warlords, drug cartels, criminal gangs, multi-national corporations. People were moving and creating diasporas. All this moving around the world was the new threat, the new dynamic. No one [meaning states] was structuring it. Wilson had tried to bring structure after World War I, and Truman brought it after World War II, from the Marshall Plan to the National Security Act of 1947.

But at the end of the Cold War, no one was paying attention to change, so the threat is now part of the world, growing larger, creating instability, with all kinds of bad things emerging. And it is all washing up on our shores. Who are we fighting? The Global War on Terrorism? That’s fighting a tactic. We’re fighting at the tactical level. We’ve got to curb the angry young men. We don’t understand that since we’re at the tactical level. The problem is instability and we can’t handle it by swatting at the symptoms it spawns. Instead, we try to beef up homeland security, build walls, and mouth platitudes about the virtues of democracy. We cannot get anywhere simply by pushing democracy without building the basis for it.

Why do we have this problem? We don’t understand the problem and we have no strategic thinking. The National Security Strategy is not the answer—it’s just about preemption and the fairy dust of elections. We have the worst organization to deal with it—stove-piped bureaucracies, a relic of the Cold War. There is no integrated planning and no cross-communications. We just created more bureaucracies [he may have been referring to the Department of Homeland Defense—possibly also the new National Director of Intelligence organization]. It is all plagued with patronage, pork, earmarks, politics—like FEMA. This Jacksonian spoils system has to go.

On instability, he had spent much time in the Arc of Crisis, area of chronic instability, whatever one wants to call it. Situations erupt, and then we attempt recovery. We ignore the signs before eruption. We act only when it becomes a crisis. That’s when we intervene. We do nothing to prepare for intervention. There’s no flood insurance. We don’t know how to do recovery.

Instability comes from (1) hostile environments and (2) incapable institutions. We have to solve both. But we don’t go to the sources of these troubles. There’s no integration of all the elements of our power. Look at illegal immigration: no one goes to the source. We don’t understand how the world has changed. We’re not organized for it.

In his book, he had to offer solutions, not just describe the problems. So he took a deep breath, stepped back, reviewed the U.S. role, etc. This new threat is not like any threat we’ve encountered before. We can’t just dash around. There’s a story about coping with cobras and bees. The cobra (Soviet Union) is dead, but now the room is filled with bees. The cumulative effect could be bad.

Questions and answers

Q. (Mr. John Barry, Newsweek). What about Rumsfeld? (Then he mumbled something about two of the generals having been in trouble—one of them had to retire at a grade lower.) What is the reason for the current agitation?

A. There’s no collusion. He hasn’t talked to other generals about it. He’s never met the man. Rumsfeld’s responsible. The military accepts responsibility when things go wrong, trying to apply the lessons they learn. What happened in this case? Rumsfeld discarded 10 years of planning toward a true occupation. We needed to take on reconstruction and to control access to Iraq, both from without and within. It was going to take a long time. But Rumsfeld had a cavalier attitude about it, discarding it all as “on-the-shelf, stale old plans,” even though the military is constantly updating its “old plans” so that they do not get “stale.” The assumptions in the plans were dismissed by Rumsfeld as too negative. The problem of no planning was symbolized when General Garner’s group got lost as they made their way into Iraq from Kuwait. Then came the CPA. And Bremer disbanded the Iraqi army. We had communicated with them for years, (promising them their continued existence if they cooperated).

While Zinni was CinCCent, he had initiated planning under the rubric of DESERT CROSSING to try to integrate all agencies—governmental and non-governmental—involved in stability and reconstruction efforts. All that was disregarded. Now we have an inability to learn how to avoid repeating and worsening our mistakes because we cannot admit having made any as long as Rumsfeld remains. Rumsfeld is not open to new ideas. He’s in denial. Condi Rice talking about “thousands of tactical mistakes” is a way of blaming the troops. But Rumsfeld denies that, too. He won’t admit mistakes. The decision-making is poor. We are now running out of options. We need new faces out in the region. We can’t cover up the mistakes. So long as Rumsfeld stays we cannot move ahead, so he needs to go. (Zinni’s tone in all this was quite dispassionate and analytical, with no hint of personal animus.)

Q. (Barry, again) He hadn’t known there was a plan for occupation.

A. When he was CENTCOM, they talked about it. We knew we could knock over the Iraqi army in three weeks. But we also knew in our discussions that then there would be internal control issues. We built a plan to do reconstruction because we knew we’d be stuck with it.

Q. Why was the plan rejected? And wouldn’t you still have institutional problems even if you changed the people?

A. To get international cooperation, we needed to change the face of the architect. Bring back Colin Powell? (He jested that making Powell the SecDef would be poetic justice. It seems clear that he has esteem for Powell.) The military was told just to take down the regime and not worry about the rest. But he knew from his experience in Somalia and elsewhere that it would be necessary. A Marine Corps general told him that he thought a Phase 4 force would follow right behind them as they advanced, but there was no such force.

Q. What did you do in your mission to bring about Middle East peace (i.e., between the Israelis and Palestinians)?

A. He had seen Clinton fail at Wye and Camp David. His mission was arranged only by State, with the agreement of the President. He had all the support from the White House that he needed. There had been the Oslo Accords, the Mitchell Plan, the Tenet Plan, but none had ever gained traction. Getting the peace process moving was seen as a long shot, but Powell was committed to trying and sent Zinni. With the help of friends at high levels in the Israeli Defense Forces, Zinni was able to gain Sharon’s reluctant agreement to commit to carrying through the peace process. The Palestinians were very resistant to objective, measured standards, including the arrest of 30-35 people.  They said that was too rigid, but we said the number of not as important as their showing some progress at it. But they balked and balked, and then Hamas attacked.  The biggest obstacle on the Palestinian side was Arafat. He would “commit,” but then never give the instructions to his officials. In a private one-on-one conversation Zinni pressed Arafat to explain why he was so reluctant. The only answer was that, “I am the only undefeated Arab general,” with the implication that he was concerned above all to keep his place and not suffer the fate of Sadat. Finally, the Passover bombings killed all chances of progress. So we wrote him off.

Q. You blame “angry young men” in the Middle East and claim it’s not a matter of ideology. We fought the Nazis and the Communists.  Now isn’t the “war against terror” really a war against militant Islam? Didn’t they kill Sadat and neutralize Arafat?  So it’s a powerful ideology, and these people can turn up anywhere. Don’t we have to destroy militant Islam for our own safety?

A. I think militant Islam is the rationale for them—people get sucked into it. Militant Islam is a symptom of instability. Studies of suicide bombers have shown that more than 60 percent have secular rather than religious family backgrounds. Typically they are lower middle class younger sons who feel hopeless and helpless as a result of the chaos in their societies. Something makes them fall for the militant line—possibly revenge for the humiliation they feel and which provides them a ticket to heaven. But militant Islam is not the deepest layer of the problem.  If their societies were healthy, they wouldn’t be attracted. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has begun a national conversation on how to approach the Kingdom’s problems and meet the challenges of the modern world. Going to the sources is the most hopeful kind of approach, not some effort to “defeat” the symptom. Reform of the nation’s educational system is widely agreed to be the most basic step. (Zinni referred to this twice later in the talk.)

Q. (Mr. Peter Swartz, CNA) You’re an operator; we here at CNA provide support to Title 10  functions. What advice would you provide on training, equipping, and organization for the global war on terror?

A. When he was assigned to 1MEF (First Marine Expeditionary Force), they got weird missions.  Then he worked at CENTCOM on natural disasters.  For these non-traditional missions, we needed problem-solvers and innovators.  You couldn’t say you couldn’t handle the problem because it didn’t fit doctrine.  We looked at how businesses operated to see how they innovated.  In Somalia, he found that it was the mavericks and non-promotable officers who worked best—he had a really weird guy who took the initiative to organize the police in Mogadishu. FAOs (Foreign Area Officers) were our greatest assets in CENTCOM.  But the services killed them (i.e., wouldn’t promote them).  We need flexible and adaptable leaders.  It’s happening on the ground in Iraq now.  The big guys never got it, but the creative O-5s and O-6s did.

Q. (Ms. Sherri Goodman, CNA) Let me pose two hypotheticals: (1) The President takes your advice and fires Rumsfeld and (2) hires Zinni.  What would you do in Iraq?  And what would you do about climate change if you were SecDef?

A. As they say, if you’re in a hole, stop digging.  What we did wrong in Iraq was that we began with the idea that we would “transform” Iraq’s society into a democracy. To have any hope of doing this we needed total control—a strong and effective occupation force, and then to establish a political and economic system rather than elections as the first steps. But the Administration did not follow through with this—they held elections rather than taking the other steps. They allowed themselves to be deluded by émigrés who had been too long out of touch.  He is surprised that the situation had not degenerated into a full-scale civil war.  We need a program of national dialogue there.  They should get all their disagreements out on the table and then be brothers and work it out.  They should put this dialogue out on TV and radio.  As for security forces, they need to connect to the people in order to get intelligence, rather than conducting massive operations.  He would gather Iraqi businessmen in Jordan and hold a summit.  But the real hope is with the youth of Iraq rather than the tribal chiefs and mullahs.  We should legitimize the militias, brand them as territorial guards, providing local security.  Then we should give them something to do (to keep them busy), like providing humanitarian aid and distributing food.

Environmental security is an emerging mission for the U.S. military.  We helped the Seychelles to protect their reefs and fisheries, for instance.  It could be a security issue in the future.

Q. (Mr. Will O’Neil) He referred to the book, Modernization, Cultural Change, and Democracy, by Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel, and asked if Zinni knew it  He noted its empirical findings that order and then prosperity were preconditions for democracy. He also noted that order is not the remedy alone. He asked if these preconditions for democracy were consistent with his own ideas.

A. He was not familiar with the book but he does agree in general that physical security and prosperity are necessary for democracy. We certainly can’t have just one of those preconditions.  All have to be worked together.  For instance, economic improvement alone leads to corruption.  The lights have gone on in the Arab world now that it is awash in oil dollars.  They know they have to revamp their education systems. They know they have to build a middle class if they are to create stability.  This is the first time for them on all this.

Q. (Mr. Steve Benson, C.S.I.S.) Isn’t it the military that defines stability?  The Navy is searching for metrics for “shaping.”

A. In medicine, they look for the symptoms, and then decide on the treatment.  In the case of countries, the symptoms may be something like the lack of institutions. “Instability” may be too broad a term, but we shouldn’t define everything like the military likes to do before acting. 

Q. What about the funds for the Commanders Emergency Relief Program (CERP)?  COCOM (Component Command) funds for this are low.  How do we change the money system? Do we need a national security agency? [Clearly did not mean the National Security Agency (NSA).]

A. We need an integrated approach.  We need to build programs to treat the symptoms.  COCOMs get some of the funds for programs.  Take counter-drug programs, for instance.  Countries have been confused by all the U.S. agencies involved.  Yemen has no control of its borders.  Terrorists have come and gone as they please.  Most of the bad guys were there.  We tried to help them form a coast guard, but it was too hard.  There were too many sources.  Someone at the top needs to say, “Make it happen.”   As for a national security agency, we need a center for the integration of plans.  We need a reserve system in other agencies.  It can’t be left just to the military.

Q. Isn’t our “special relationship” with Israel an obstacle? Isn’t there a clash with our interest in oil?  Do we as a government have to reorder our priorities?

A. No. We have a special relationship with Israel and another special relationship with the Arab states. Israel is a democracy. We did things with the Arabs that the Israelis didn’t like.  We have defended a lot of Muslims.  It is only by having special relationships on both sides that we can gain any leverage to make peace. Our long-term efforts with Greece and Turkey are a case in point. It is never a zero-sum game.  To improve relations with one side doesn’t mean drawing down relations with the others.  Only the U.S. can be the mediator, which means relations with both sides.  On oil, it doesn’t make any sense to talk about “oil independence.”  We can’t lessen our reliance on oil, at least not any time soon.  We’ve just got to make it secure and gain access.

Q. What should be done about the UN and the World Bank?

A. We should not turn our backs on the international organizations as some advocate. They can and should be made into useful and positive forces, and we should lead the effort to do so. However, we should place much more emphasis on regional organizations. With guidance and support they can do a great deal of the heavy lifting in making peace and stability, and do so at low cost (especially low cost to us). We need to give peacekeeping forces real help, not just tactical training. They want to gain the capability.  We should also partner with NGOs in these efforts. 

Q. Martin Van Creveld, the military historian, says that nuclear proliferation has contributed to international security,  What should we do about Iran?

A. For deterrence, we need counter-value targeting—not against a man in a cave, but against a regime. The fundamental fact about Iran is that Iranians share a strong sense of Persian identity and greatness. They want to take their rightful place at the top. They don’t want to be isolated; they don’t want to be considered a rogue state. This is what is feeding the nuclear effort. We should work to establish and maintain a solid front in the UN Security Council condemning Iran’s policies. He believes that the Iranians will not want to be cast as outlaws, as long as we can ensure Security Council solidarity. There is a real reform movement in Iran. It received a major setback as a result of our invasion of Iraq, which has strengthened the hands of the mullahs, but it remains viable and active. They are determined to achieve progress by peaceful and constitutional means, without a civil war. We need to motivate their youth.

Q. (Dr. Hank Gaffney, CNA). He is hearing about instability raging around the world and the need for an integrated U.S. government effort to cope with it.  Of course, he had worked on the Middle East and then security assistance from 1979 through 1990, and we were rather proud of the fact that we were working “the rest of the world” (ROW) and were amused to find everyone else discovering it upon the end of the Cold War. On the other hand, the analyses by the Center for International Development and Conflict Management (CIDCM) at the University of Maryland and the Human Security Center at the University of British Columbia show that the number of internal conflicts have been dropping like a stone since 1989-1990.  Something seems to be going right in the world. But the real problem is that the U.S. is not going to solve instability in all countries of the world.  How do we set priorities?

A. Zinni seemed quite surprised to hear that the count of conflicts had been dropping; a brief colloquy ensued. He acknowledged that his own sense of rising instability is a reflection of his personal involvement in so many crises rather than a broad survey. As for priorities he senses a “mood for change” in the United States, singling out the need to reduce the influence of lobbyists, cut back on Congressional pork, stop filling so many key jobs with political appointees with irrelevant political agendas and inadequate competence, and trim bloated bureaucracies. He did not elaborate on the means to accomplish these objectives.

Q. (Dr. Harlan Ullman, Moderator, CNA). How do we reform President George W. Bush?

A. President Bush is ready to make decisions but needs a sound, trusted advisor, a George Marshall or George Kennan, to work out policies he is willing to implement.  We need a bipartisan committee to advise him.  The President might accept that.  It also takes an agreeable Congress ready to break rice bowls.  The mood in the country is that the people want change.

Q. (Dr. Aline Quester, CNA). Money is getting tighter in Congress. Are there risks in cutting back the military?

A. It is clear that military budgets are going to level off and then retreat. The QDR avoided the question and left us with a force that still looks like the Cold War force. The military will have to be reformed.  Going high-tech (as this Administration indicated at the beginning) fell flat, and now we are going to have to rely more on manpower—as the Army recognizes with its brigade reorganizations.  The military hasn’t done the assessment of threats in order to decide where we can take risks.  There’s a failure of the intelligence system in this regard.  But we can save by cutting back on bloated bureaucracy.

Q. Many countries in CENTCOM are only one-deep in leadership.  Are there reliable foreign militaries that can be stabilizing elements?

A. Military-military relations are best, but Congress dislikes them.  In the case of Turkmenistan, we had established such relations, but then we were told to break them off because of the dictatorial regime there.  The same thing happened in Kenya because the U.S. didn’t like President Moi [who stayed in office too long and didn’t curb corruption].  As for Musharraf in Pakistan, Zinni was told to break off relations with him when he seized power from the civilian government.  At the request of senior officials Zinni later called Musharraf asking for assistance on several important matters. He helped us, but Washington didn’t want to do anything for him.  Zinni had remarked about that to Musharraf, but Musharraf said that he had done things for us without recompense because it was the right thing to do.  Military-to-military relations are an avenue to better relations and positive influence. It does not make sense to cut off contacts with the military because of some governmental action that the military has no part in or influence over. As one of his foreign military contacts asked after such a rupture, “When the police commit a human rights violation in the U.S., do you penalize your own military for it?”


Posted 17 Apr 2006

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