General calls for decisive plan of action in Iraq

Speaking to a capacity crowd at the Sanford Institute for Public Policy on Jan. 29, Gen. Anthony Zinni, USMC (Ret.), gave a sharply critical analysis of both the war in Iraq and the current administration’s Middle East policy as a whole.

Gen. Anthony Zinni, USMC (Ret.)While criticism of the war in Iraq has increased in recent months, Zinni’s non-partisan approach emphasized learning from mistakes made in the region, rather than merely assigning blame to any particular political faction. “It’s time to end the red state/blue state (BS),” he declared.

Zinni – a frank and impassioned speaker – was the 2007 Terry Sanford Distinguished Lecturer. During a two-day visit to the Institute, he also participated in two luncheon discussions with students and met with area ROTC members and Rotary Peace Fellows.

In a speech that emphasized the long and complex history of Western involvement in the Middle East, Zinni expressed his frustration over current government leaders’ disregard for tactical strategies generated during his time there.

Beginning with the first Gulf War, his leadership in the region spanned more than a decade, Zinni explained, affording him an intimate understanding of the interrelated political and social relationships there. From 1997 to 2000, Zinni was commander-in-chief of the U.S. Central Command, overseeing U.S. military activity in the Arab Gulf and Central Asia. After he retired in 2002, President Bush appointed him as the U.S. Special Envoy to Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

When preparations began for the overthrow of Saddam in 2001, “I was shocked to see that 10 years of experience and war planning in Iraq were cast aside,” he said. “This was not only a military task; it was a political, social, economic task.” He said the U.S. plan for Iraq was short-sighted and did not prepare for the reconstruction of post-Saddam Iraq. Rather, the prevailing theory in Washington – that Iraqis would automatically embrace a “Jeffersonian ideal” of democracy following Saddam’s ouster – was used to justify a lack of long-term planning.

Sectarian divisions and an overall lack of democratic experience in the region were not adequately recognized, he added. Pointing to a tendency to oversimplify Middle Eastern politics and cultural realities, Zinni described the current conflict as “much more complicated than we have given it credit for.”

Gen. Anthony Zinni, USMC (Ret.)He also criticized the government’s effort to minimize ground troops and instead fight a highly-touted “high-tech” war, describing the approach out of touch with the reality on the ground. Policymakers’ overconfidence in smart weaponry was a direct cause of the troop deficiency issues the U.S. now faces, he said.

Characterizing the future of Iraq as an opportunity to move forward in terms of international policy, Zinni advocated for clear and decisive action from the American people as well as government leaders. Signaling a need to move beyond partisan infighting and minor debates, he asserted, “This argument over 23,000 troops is absurd… Either you fix it, you contain it or you leave it, and none of those is going to be easy. But make up your damn mind.”

Zinni also called on government leaders to better shape their policy for the post-Cold War era, and recognize the diminished applicability of notions like nation-state and physical borders. Commenting on the recent lack of policy discussions with Middle Eastern states, Zinni noted, “We have no vision for future security because we did not know how to collaborate [with regional leaders].” He also pointed to bloated national bureaucracy and isolationistic policy decisions as symptomatic of an administration lacking the dynamism necessary for contemporary global politics.

From 1997 to 2000, Zinni was commander-in-chief of the U.S. Central Command, overseeing U.S. military activity in the Arab Gulf and Central Asia. After retiring from the Marines in 2002, President Bush appointed him as the U.S. Special Envoy to Israel and the Palestinian Authority.