Making Vietnam’s Mistakes All Over Again
(Retired) Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni is a decorated Vietnam veteran who served with US forces in Somalia and preceded Tommy Franks and John Abizaid as commander of Central Command, the nerve center of the US military in the Middle East. He also served briefly as a Special Envoy to the Middle East for the current Bush administration. The following is excerpted from a discussion at the Burkle Center for International Affairs at UCLA on May 14.
Los Angeles—I spoke to some very senior Arab friends recently about the abuses of Iraqi prisoners by American forces and they were just really destroyed by it. They are very pro-American, and they know the damage these images cause in their part of the world. They said to me what I already know: “You would have been better off with pictures of troops executing these prisoners, 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.”
That humiliation, for them, is the worst of all situations.
I have spent my life as a United States military man in the Caribbean, in the Far East, in Africa, in the Middle East, in Southwest Asia, in Central Asia and in Europe. Our biggest flaw is that we never take time to understand the culture. Some things we do that make perfect sense to us do not make perfect sense in another culture.
As a result, look at the mistakes we’ve made in Iraq day by day: the de-Baathification, the disbanding of the army, bringing in exiles and propping them up as leadership—we have made every mistake we possibly could.
COMPARING IRAQ AND VIETNAM | Some of the strategic mistakes are very similar. First of all, in Vietnam we went in with a flawed strategy. Remember, the strategy was that 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 comparison is trying to draw the American people into support of the war 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 while they were innocently in international waters, when they weren’t. They were in North Vietnam territorial waters supporting an ongoing operation. And here we have had 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.
THE PROBLEM AT THE PENTAGON | I like somebody in the chain of command who has “smelled a little powder,” as my father, who was a World War I vet, used to say. 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—Rich Armitage and Colin Powell—are in the State Department. There are more medals in the State Department than there are in the Department of Defense, unfortunately.
NOW WHAT? | 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 ABSENCE OF A PLAN | 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 have been 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 in the region that they had never seen the Iraqi 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 it’s chaos? What are you going to do about it?”
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.
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 institutional memory had lapsed completely.
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 that there was no plan. The current government was way underestimating what they were getting into. That they had done virtually no planning.
Why didn’t they do it? 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.
This whole war was a big mistake on our part that has produced an unneeded bag of worms. It was elective surgery that didn’t need to be done.
GETTING OUT | The time has not yet come to get out—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 all 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 United Nations resolution, going back to that model the first President Bush put in place after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. 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.
We have to start there. We need a resolution by the UN that will allow other countries, especially those in the region, that can and want to help to come in. 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 aren’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 or what. 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 substantive way. We made a big mistake in bringing in the Gucci guerrillas from London who were the exiles that we propped up in positions of authority.
They have been rejected by the Iraqi people.
SOLVING THE ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN CONFLICT | I think there are some things that are really evident about the process. First is, the president of the US and his office need to be directly involved in this. 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 has brought them to Camp David. Think about President Carter bringing Sadat and Begin there, and we have King Hussein 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 distasteful, I know. Sometimes damaging and difficult. And certainly the greatest leader of the free world, you would think, has other priorities. But that, number one, is what it takes.
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 in this process. We need a big commitment. We need the world in there with us and a major commitment of diplomats and people on the ground working economic, political, security issues. We need to look 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 village to village, town to town. You have to light a thousand fires here, not try to light one fuse.