General Anthony Zinni, former commander of Middle East Central Command, says the Iraq war was "a big mistake" and there was no plan for the reconstruction.
The U.S. should not have invaded Iraq without UN backing, there was no imminent threat from Saddam Hussein, and the invasion was done without any real plan for rebuilding and stabilizing Iraq after the war. If the speaker was a liberal columnist the assessment would not be surprising, but these were the views of recently retired Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni, a decorated Vietnam veteran who served with U.S. forces in Somalia and preceded Tommy Franks and John Abizaid as commander of Central Command, the nerve center of the U.S. military in the Middle East. He also served briefly as a Special Envoy to the Middle East for the current Bush administration at the request of his friend Colin Powell, until he became too critical of administration policy. General Zinni spoke at UCLA's Ackerman Union May 11 as the guest of the Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations.
Zinni called the invasion of Iraq "a big mistake on our part," describing it as "an unneeded bag of worms. It was elective surgery that didn't need to be done." He predicted that it was "going to be trouble for many years to come."
In the formal part of his talk, Zinni outlined his view of the roots of instability in the Middle East, citing joblessness as a major source of the angry young men being recruited into extremist Islamic organizations. In the question period, however, he took up more directly mistakes and failures of the Bush administration in the region. Following are some of General Zinni's responses to specific questions.
"I just spoke to some Arab friends of mine recently, very senior, and they were just really destroyed by this, because they are very pro-American and they know the damage these images cause in their part of the world. And what they said to me, and what I already know, 'You would have been better off with pictures of troops executing them, shooting them in the head, than doing what they did. In this part of the world this is easily the worst atrocity that could have been committed, even worse than execution.' Where in our part of the world obviously we don't consider that. Nobody died, and maybe nobody was really physically harmed, so we don't see that as the worst of all situations. That humiliation is the worst of all situations.
"I have spent my life in the Caribbean, in the Far East, in Africa, in the Middle East, in Southwest Asia, and in Central Asia, in Europe, Eastern Europe. And what I find our biggest flaw is, we never take time to understand the culture. Some things we do that make perfect sense to us do not make perfect sense in their culture. You can look at Iraq and the thing that frustrated me was watching all the mistakes being made day to day: the de-Baathification, the disbanding of the army, bringing in exiles and propping them up as leadership -- everything that we could possibly make a mistake."
"I think there are some things that are really evident about the process. First is, the president of the United States and his office need to be directly involved in this. I hate to say that. You would think, our president needs to be directly in the peace process, but this is so important and nothing short of that, not the secretaries or anybody else, can move this process. It takes that kind of commitment. The closest we've ever come to resolving this is when the president brought them to Camp David. Think about President Carter bringing Sadat and Begin there, and we have King Hussain and we get a peace agreement. When President Clinton brought Barak and Arafat we came close. But it takes that kind of commitment. That is politically, I know, distasteful. Sometimes damaging and difficult. And certainly the greatest leader of the free world, you would think has other priorities. But I'm afraid that's the number one going in thing.
"The other thing that has to happen is that we have to stop this business of special envoys. Of short term, high profile in and outs, touch and goes on this process. We need a big commitment. We need the world and us in there with a major commitment of diplomats and people on the ground working economic, political, security issues, how we are going to monitor it, full time, 24/7 on the ground. And looking for all sorts of ways to start programs and connections, even on the local level. Not trying to solve it only at the top, only between a Sharon and an Arafat, but maybe village to village, town to town, on agreements. You have to light a thousand fires here, not try to light one fuse."
"There are some ways in which Vietnam doesn't apply and some ways in which Vietnam does apply. I think you can certainly make the case looking at facts and geography and the situation, you could make the argument that there are two very different events and situations. I would make the case though that some of the strategic mistakes are very similar. First of all, in Vietnam we went in with a flawed strategy. Remember, the strategy was, we had to stop communism before the dominoes fell. All of Southeast Asia would come apart once Vietnam fell. Obviously it fell and the rest of Southeast Asia didn't. It was a flawed strategy.
"Here we have a strategy that we can change this part of the world by going into Iraq, installing democracy, and it's going to explode throughout the region. Comments like, the road to Jerusalem leads through Baghdad, when just the opposite is true. A flawed strategy.
"The second is the temptation to draw the American people in by cooking the books. We did it with the Gulf of Tonkin situation where we were led to believe there was an attack on our destroyers when they were innocently in international waters, when they weren't. They were in North Vietnam territorial waters supporting an operation that was going on. And here we have the case for WMD as an imminent threat for not using international authority to go in.
"We had a situation in Vietnam where we underestimated the threat or the situation. We have a case here where we underestimated the threat or the situation. We had a case in Vietnam where we went in without a viable plan. We have a case here where we have gone in with no plan, not even a less-than-viable plan.
"We made mistakes on the ground in Vietnam. We made tactical mistakes, we made policy mistakes. As an example, one year individual rotations, not mobilizing the reserves. We have made mistakes here, overmobilizing the reserves. . . . de-Baathification, not understanding the situation and the culture. So there are a lot of similarities."
He added a few sharp comments on the Rumsfeld Defense Department:
"I got in trouble for saying this before, but I like somebody in the chain of command that has smelled a little powder, as my father used to say, who was a World War I vet. If you smelled powder you have a different view, you think twice and you are very careful. If you haven't, it's just one big adventure until you have seen the first body. And unfortunately we don't have enough people -- all the warriors are in the State Department, Rich Armitage, Colin Powell, there are more medals in the State Department than there are in the Department of Defense, unfortunately."
"I think security is the most pressing problem there right now. It's hard to get past that. But the more substantial problem is jobs. You need to get the economy functioning. If the Iraqis have jobs I think they will stand up to the extremists that are trying to destroy their country much more firmly. If you don't have a job and you are unsure of the government and the security situation is bad, you have nothing. I saw this in Vietnam. We are seeing this again here. The people feel like they are caught in between. You've got to give the people something to fight for. And it's not enough just to say they can vote somebody in. They've not only got to vote somebody in, they have to have a sense of well-being."
"The first crisis we had after the cold war was Saddam's invasion of Kuwait. What is the way we are going to handle the first post-cold war bipolar world? George Bush [Senior] goes to tremendous pains to get a UN resolution. He uses the force of diplomacy to get a very difficult resolution. He then uses all his magnificent cabinet members to go out and build what I think was one of the most remarkable coalitions in history -- Arabs, Muslims, Europeans, Asians -- and he deals with this problem within the context of the international authority of the UN resolution under a coalition of U.S. leadership, because we have the wherewithal militarily. But he stays within the rumble strips of that lane. Within what the resolution provided, he removes Saddam from Kuwait. He then went back to the UN to get the UN resolutions for the sanctions and containment of Iraq. He didn't go to Baghdad, for a very good reason if you read what he and Scowcroft wrote. He didn't want to inherit the country, because he knew the problems would be up there, and he didn't want to violate the UN resolution, because it didn't authorize it, and he didn't want to break the coalition he had. So for twelve years we contained Iraq within this international framework. What did it cost us? We never lost a plane. We never even scratched the paint on a plane. The Arabs in the world paid $300 to $500 million a year to support our presence out there. When we went off to Somalia and other places -- Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo -- we did it the same way. He set the model for the next administration. They contributed forces. When I was in Somalia we had forces from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, a lot of Muslim countries. We had Egypt and United Arab Emirates with us in the Balkans. They liked the framework."
"In 1998 we bombed Iraq. [Saddam Hussein] threw out the inspectors and we conducted an operation called Desert Fox, and we bombed facilities that could be used to develop weapons systems for WMD, because we didn't know if he had them or didn't have them, but we could hit missile production facilities, the intelligence headquarters, etc. At the end of that four days an interesting thing happened. I was commander of Central Command at the time, and we started to get reports from embassies that were in that they had never seen the government so shaken, almost paralyzed. And when I traveled around the region and spoke to Kuwaitis, Jordanians, and others, they said, 'You know, you are bombing them all the time, you are hitting them, and you are shaking them, what if he were to collapse? What if you got Saddam in a palace or somewhere, or the people rose up and its chaos? What are you going to do about it?'
"And it struck me then that we had a plan to defeat Saddam's army, but we didn't have a plan to rebuild Iraq. And so I asked the different agencies of government to come together to talk about reconstruction planning for Iraq. . . . I thought we ought to look at political reconstruction, economic reconstruction, security reconstruction, humanitarian need, services, and infrastructure development. We met in Washington, DC. We called the plan, and we gamed it out in the scenario, Desert Crossing. The first meeting surfaced all the problems that have exactly happened now. This was 1999. And when I took it back and looked at it, I said, we need a plan. Not all of this is a military responsibility. I went back to State Department, to the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, Department of Commerce and others and said, all right, how about you guys taking part of the plan. We need a plan in addition to the war plan for the reconstruction. Not interested. Would not look at it. So at Central Command before I left -- I retired in 2000 -- I started a plan called Desert Crossing for the reconstruction of Iraq. Because I was convinced nobody in Washington was going to plan for it, and we, the military, would get stuck with it. So when I left in 2000 we were in the process of that planning. When it looked like we were going in, I called back down to Centcom and said, You need to dust off Desert Crossing. They said, What's that? Never heard of it. So in a matter of just a few years it was gone. The corporate memory. And in addition I was told, 'We've been told not to do any of the planning. It would all be done in the Pentagon.'
"In February , the month before the war, I was called before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to testify on this, and the panel before me was the planner for the State Department and the planner for the Pentagon. And they were briefing their so-called plan. It was clear to me, and I testified to that effect afterwards in the next panel, that there was no plan. That they were way underestimating what they were getting into. That they had done virtually no planning. And that they were in for big trouble. And to answer your question why didn't they do it, the only thing I can say, they naively misjudged the scope and the complexity of the problems they were going to have. They thought they could do it seat of the pants."
"Not yet, but it could be getting close. Unfortunately. I hate to say that. I want to see this work, from the bottom of my heart. And I think we keep making mistakes. The first rule if you find yourself in a hole is stop digging. We seem to keep digging. Nobody in the world, with the exception of the crazies and extremists and jihadis, wants us to fail. Not the French, not the Arabs, they want us to succeed. They don't agree with what we have done here and the way we've done it, the way we have gone in there, but everybody sees failure as far worse than crowing that I told you so. They don't want that. We have to come out with a stable Iraq. I think that the key is getting a UN resolution, going back to that model I mentioned that the first President Bush put in place. It should have been what we did in the first place. . . .
"It might have taken six months, nine months, or a year. But who cares? There was no imminent threat. Believe me. I saw the intelligence before the war. There was no imminent threat. Trust me. No imminent threat. I told Senator Lugar that, at my testimony a month before the war. He asked me, 'Is there an imminent threat?' I said no.
"We have to start there. We need a resolution by the UN that will allow other countries that want to and can help, especially in the region, to help us. We need to set up the security forces in Iraq so they are viable. That will take a while. We need to get Iraqi businessmen and foreign investors together. We need to protect their businesses. We need to get them up and started so there are jobs for Iraqis. We need a political process that makes sense. We need to create political parties that are transparent and viable. We've got to create a program of educating the electorate so that Friday prayers from the mosque isn't where they get their voting instructions. We need to set up a system of government that they all understand. They still don't know if there is going to be a confederation, a federation, we don't even know who we are going to turn it over to one month from now.
"And these things have to be resolved. . . . They are political, they are economic, they are security issues that we have wasted over a year in not really addressing in any substantial way. We have made a big mistake in bringing our guys in, the Gucci guerrillas from London that were the exiles that we propped up and put them over, and in positions of authority, and they are rejected by the Iraqi people."
Published: Friday, May 14, 2004