Anthony Zinni Interview (2007): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Challenges for U.S. National Security Policy,î General Tony Zinni, former Commander in Chief of the Central Command (1997-2000), April 23, 2007

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Early Lessons from the Iraq War

General Zinni, welcome back to Berkeley.

Thank you, Harry, good to be back.

What are the lessons we can draw from the Iraq war?

There are a number of lessons. The principal lesson might be that in the case of a democracy, and particularly ours, you can't just take the military to war. You'll have to take the country to war, if that's what you choose to do, or if that's what you see as the requirement. Secondly, the rationale for engaging in a war, especially if it's going to be unilateral and unprovoked directly, has to be clear. If it becomes questionable afterwards, it works against the support that's necessary for our democracy to function in that environment. [Thirdly,] you have to understand the culture that you're operating in. You can't believe that you can use Western concepts, Western ideology, and think that it's going to naturally take hold. You also have to understand the dynamics that are going on within that culture, within the region, and be careful that what you think you're about to do may be entirely different than what you unleash. So, I think those are amongst the key things that we should learn from this intervention.

As head of the Central Command, you put into place the strategy of containing Saddam, keeping him in the box, which before the war the Realists were telling us was working.

Right. And actually we did it very efficiently and effectively, as proven by the fact that Saddam didn't have weapons of mass destruction and was no longer a threat to the region or perceived as such. We did it without additional troops; we did it with fewer troops on a day-to-day basis than all of Central Command who go to work at the Pentagon every day; we did it with the support of allies in the region and outside the region that helped us retain the sanctions, UN Resolution-approved sanctions; we did it in a way that we built alliances and friendships that not only shared the burden but when we went to places like Somalia or into the Balkans they actually were there with us, the Saudis, the Kuwaitis, the Emirates, the Egyptians, the Jordanians all provided forces.

So, the idea of containment formed by President Bush 41in the aftermath of the Gulf War was effective. Those in the region and those in the international community, especially since we had UN authority, thought this was the appropriate way to handle the situation and prevent these instabilities from exploding into something larger.

Ambassador Joseph Wilson was a guest on our program and we talked about his book, and in that book he saw as a turning point the passage of the regime change law in the late 1990s. He pointed out that you were one of the few people, if not the only person, to red-flag that legislation. Talk a little about that, because that was part of the buildup of the momentum, and then we were struck by the events of 2001.

At the [middle or] end of the nineties there was a movement to begin to look at how internally we could affect regime change. I think it was misguided in many ways. There was maybe a bill of goods that was being sold by the Iraqi National Congress, Ahmed Chalabi and company, and a number of others operating as exiles, convincing the so-called neoconservatives and members of Congress, and others, that given proper funding and support they could work to undermine Saddam's regime and could create an insurgency or revolution. I saw it as flawed for several reasons. One, they had no credibility inside Iraq. There wasn't going to be a popular uprising that supported them. There was no regional support for it. They were discredited for many reasons, their leadership and motivation, they were infiltrated in terms of Saddam's intelligence forces that understood what they were doing, they had tried and attempted to do this before and were badly beaten in the attempts.

Most importantly, I felt that if we went down that road we were going to be dragged into something we didn't control and we didn't understand. Chalabi and company were condoning an approval for the use of our military, our air support, special forces, in total support of them. So, we would've signed on to whatever they did or brought about. Again, I saw us being dragged into something that we hadn't thought through completely. I didn't trust the leadership, and this was based on the intelligence we had. So, this Iraqi Liberation Act, which initially authorized $97 million for the support of this, I saw as a step or a beginning to draw us into something that we would regret, and something that wasn't being thought out totally, what the consequences might be in the end.

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