One thing you’ve got to say for Anthony Zinni–the guy’s got guts. The Washington Post’s For Vietnam Vet Anthony Zinni, Another War on Shaky Territory describes where this fearlessness comes from:
He was lying on a Vietnamese mountainside west of Da Nang, three rounds from an AK-47 assault rifle in his side and back. He could feel his lifeblood seeping into the ground as he slipped in and out of consciousness.
He had plenty of time to think in the following months while recuperating in a military hospital in Hawaii. He promised himself, “If I’m ever in a position to say what I think is right, I will. . . . I don’t care what happens to my career.”
Zinni is now speaking his mind about Iraq and has become one of the fiercest military critics of Bush’s War. His opposition is all the more striking because he endorsed Bush-Cheney in 2000 and counts himself as a centrist Republican. He said of Bush:
“I think he ran on a moderate ticket, and that’s my leaning — I’m kind of a Lugar-Hagel-Powell guy,” he says, listing three Republicans associated with centrist foreign policy positions.
It is instructive to hear what this blood and guts, old school officer has to say about our current policy, since he recently served as Bush’s Mideast envoy, served as Centcom commander in the late 1990s and devised his own plan for the U.S. military to occupy Iraq. Here are some salient passages from the article:
“Iraq is in serious danger of coming apart because of lack of planning, underestimating the task and buying into a flawed strategy,” he says. “The longer we stubbornly resist admitting the mistakes and not altering our approach, the harder it will be to pull this chestnut out of the fire.”
I strongly believe that this Zinni statement from 1998 will prove prescient as Iraq moves closer to self-rule and possible chaos:
I think a weakened, fragmented, chaotic Iraq, which could happen if this isn’t done carefully, is more dangerous in the long run than a contained Saddam is now. I don’t think these questions have been thought through or answered.
Zinni also doubts that Sadaam’s capture marks a turning point in our efforts to pacify the Iraqi resistance:
“Since we’ve failed thus far to capitalize” on opportunities in Iraq, he says, “I don’t have confidence we will do it now. I believe the only way it will work now is for the Iraqis themselves to somehow take charge and turn things around. Our policy, strategy, tactics, et cetera, are still screwed up.”
Zinni’s sharp dissent from current U.S. policy began at a 2002 Veterans of Foreign Wars convention at which he was receiving a leadership award for his 35 years of service in the Marine Corps. Sitting on the convention dais, he heard Vice President Cheney baldly contend:
Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction,” Cheney said. “There is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us.”
Zinni immediately knew that what Cheney was saying was knowingly false:
Cheney’s certitude bewildered Zinni. As chief of the Central Command, Zinni had been immersed in U.S. intelligence about Iraq. He was all too familiar with the intelligence analysts’ doubts about Iraq’s programs to acquire weapons of mass destruction, or WMD. “In my time at Centcom, I watched the intelligence, and never — not once — did it say, ‘He has WMD.’ ”
Though retired for nearly two years, Zinni says, he remained current on the intelligence through his consulting with the CIA and the military. “I did consulting work for the agency, right up to the beginning of the war. I never saw anything. I’d say to analysts, ‘Where’s the threat?’ ” Their response, he recalls, was, “Silence.”
Zinni’s conclusion as he slowly walked off the stage that day was that the Bush administration was determined to go to war. A moment later, he had another, equally chilling thought: “These guys don’t understand what they are getting into.”
As Centcom chief, Zinni devised his own plan in 1999 for the U.S. to occupy Iraq in case Sadaam ever were to fall. But in the conditions leading up the Iraq War:
He didn’t see any need to invade Iraq. He didn’t think Hussein was much of a worry anymore. “He was contained,” he says. “It was a pain in the ass, but he was contained. He had a deteriorated military. He wasn’t a threat to the region.”
Zinni’s concern deepened at a Senate hearing in February, just six weeks before the war began. As he awaited his turn to testify, he listened to Pentagon and State Department officials talk vaguely about the “uncertainties” of a postwar Iraq. He began to think they were doing the wrong thing the wrong way. “I was listening to the panel, and I realized, ‘These guys don’t have a clue.’ ”
During his service as Centcom commander, he directed the retaliatory air strikes derided by neoconservatives at the time as toothless and ineffective. After hearing from western diplomats based in Baghdad that the strikes had paralyzed the Iraqi dictatorship, he felt he should devise a plan just in case American military power caused the overthrow of Sadaam.
So early in 1999 he ordered that plans be devised for the possibility of the U.S. military having to occupy Iraq. Under the code name “Desert Crossing,” the resulting document called for a nationwide civilian occupation authority, with offices in each of Iraq’s 18 provinces. That plan contrasts sharply, he notes, with the reality of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S. occupation power, which for months this year had almost no presence outside Baghdad — an absence that some Army generals say has increased their burden in Iraq.
Later, when he testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee just before the War began:
Listening to the administration officials testify that day, Zinni began to suspect that his careful plans had been disregarded. Concerned, he later called a general at Central Command’s headquarters in Tampa and asked, “Are you guys looking at Desert Crossing?” The answer, he recalls, was, “What’s that?”
The more he listened to Wolfowitz and other administration officials talk about Iraq, the more Zinni became convinced that interventionist “neoconservative” ideologues were plunging the nation into a war in a part of the world they didn’t understand. “The more I saw, the more I thought that this was the product of the neocons who didn’t understand the region and were going to create havoc there. These were dilettantes from Washington think tanks who never had an idea that worked on the ground.”
Supporters of the war airily dismiss all analogies between Iraq and Vietnam. But Zinni is a soldier who’s lived through both experiences and if anyone’s earned a right to make analogies he has:
Obviously there are differences” between Vietnam and Iraq, he says. “Every situation is unique.” But in his bones, he feels the same chill. “It feels the same. I hear the same things — about [administration charges about] not telling the good news, about cooking up a rationale for getting into the war.” He sees both conflicts as beginning with deception by the U.S. government, drawing a parallel between how the Johnson administration handled the beginning of the Vietnam War and how the Bush administration touted the threat presented by Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. “I think the American people were conned into this,” he says. Referring to the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, in which the Johnson administration claimed that U.S. Navy ships had been subjected to an unprovoked attack by North Vietnam, he says, “The Gulf of Tonkin and the case for WMD and terrorism is synonymous in my mind.”
While I appreciate Zinni’s attack on Wolfowitz and the neoconservatives who devised the strategy (such as it is) for this failed war, I take issue with his views that they somehow “captured” Bush and Cheney. To me, it is crystal clear that Bush and especially Cheney did not need to be captured. They embraced the Wolfowitz-Rumsfeld line:
And that brings him back to Wolfowitz and his neoconservative allies as the root of the problem. “I don’t know where the neocons came from — that wasn’t the platform they ran on,” he says. “Somehow, the neocons captured the president. They captured the vice president.”
He is especially irked that, as he sees it, no senior officials have taken responsibility for their incorrect assessment of the threat posed by Iraq. “What I don’t understand is that the bill of goods the neocons sold him has been proven false, yet heads haven’t rolled,” he says. “Where is the accountability? I think some fairly senior people at the Pentagon ought to go.” Who? “That’s up to the president.”
We can name names here. Zinni is obliquely (but quite openly) saying that Rumsfeld and the other neoconservative wonks at the Pentagon have got to go. As we Jews say in a different context: “May it happen speedily and in our day.” The article continues by noting Zinni’s reticence in becoming a symbol of the anti-war movement. It also notes that such reticence makes those occasions on which he does speak out all the more compelling and gripping:
Zinni has picked his shots carefully — a speech here, a “Nightline” segment or interview there. “My contemporaries, our feelings and sensitivities were forged on the battlefields of Vietnam, where we heard the garbage and the lies, and we saw the sacrifice,” he said at a talk to hundreds of Marine and Navy officers and others at a Crystal City hotel ballroom in September. “I ask you, is it happening again?” The speech, part of a forum sponsored by the U.S. Naval Institute and the Marine Corps Association, received prolonged applause, with many officers standing.
Zinni says that he hasn’t received a single negative response from military people about the stance he has taken. “I was surprised by the number of uniformed guys, all ranks, who said, ‘You’re speaking for us. Keep on keeping on.’ ”
Even home in Williamsburg, he has been surprised at the reaction. “I mean, I live in a very conservative Republican community, and people were saying, ‘You’re right.’ ”
Unfortunately, his recent military experience and his movement into the anti-war camp seem to have soured him on politics:
Zinni vows that he has learned a lesson. Reminded that he endorsed Bush in 2000, he says, “I’m not going to do anything political again — ever. I made that mistake one time.”
If Howard Dean ever gets to the White House (I realize that’s a big “if”), wouldn’t Anthony Zinni make a great Defense Secretary?
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