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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You fault the post - Cold War presidents for not addressing the problems that we've been talking about, the new instabilities, the threats emerging. Talk a little about that. Some presidents get better grades than others in this post - Cold War world, but all of them haven't grappled with the problems we're talking about at the strategic level.

Yes, I think there are mixed reviews. In in some cases the presidents have done things that were positive, in other cases they've failed. President Bush 41, the first President Bush, obviously at the beginning of this change, took certain actions, for example, in dealing with Saddam Hussein in the initial incursion into Kuwait. He went to the painstaking process of gaining a UN resolution as the authority to act. He built a coalition to ensure, especially in the Islamic world, that the battlefield represented the total force of not just Western powers, or others from the outside, but had regional support and commitment. And at the end of the expulsion of [Iraq from] Kuwait he did not go to Baghdad.

First of all, I think that was smart, but secondly, what it demonstrated -- and I was traveling around the world at the time, talking to all sorts of leaders, military and political leaders, and they thought that this was remarkable, that as a sole remaining superpower who could unilaterally do anything we wanted, we chose to stay within the framework of the international agreements and resolutions, we built a containment policy afterwards, and the sanctions, enforced it with a coalition. That model was appreciated, that even though we didn't have to we were choosing to build partnerships, to build international and regional relationships.

The Clinton administration talked a lot about engagement and shaping environments. I think that it was more Trumanesque in its approach, "Let's go out and see where we can help and change things positively." I think it [succeeded] more in not shaping things in our model, or imposing, or inflicting our ways of doing things but finding ways that worked within their culture. In many ways the [George W.] Bush administration, through the frustration and all, saw the need for more energy and activity out there, maybe arguably misguided by the unilateral approach and the use of the military as the lead element. But they all failed in some respects, in my mind, that they didn't understand the scope of this change. It required new strategic thinking, a new understanding of this changing world. It required a restructuring of our own government, much as President Truman did in the 1947 National Security Act. He saw his government structure wasn't capable of operating in this world.

No business would operate like our government does. This bloated bureaucracy, heavily layered, very stovepipe, failed us on 9/11, failed us in Katrina. There are leftover legacy systems that don't work anymore, patronage systems where there's greater failure placed on political contributions and loyalties and friendships than there is on competence. Again, we saw that in Katrina and in Iraq, systems like our earmark and pork system where the treasure with its limitations aren't applied to the most productive way, the way everything has become so heavily politicized in this environment and is so short-term in its vision.

There's nothing that goes on in our government that has any kind of long-term perspective. I just had a senator tell me that the document with the longest horizon that we produce is the five-year budget out of the Congress, and really, the budget's reviewed every year so it's not even really five years. The administration is supposed to articulate a national security strategy and update it every year, but it really isn't a strategy. It's sort of a statement of values and principles that is everything to all people but doesn't really offer guidance, doesn't explain the priorities we have, the allocation of resources, the vision for where we want to be, an articulation of the world as it is.

So, we have failed because we've become political and not visionary and strategic in our thinking, and we have failed in many ways because we have not restructured our government. I do a lot of work in business now. No business could operate today with that kind of structure. It needs to flatten itself, streamline itself, integrated itself, be dynamic and changing, because that's the nature of the world today.

It's a pretty telling indictment that you've just made. How do you explain the difference in the leadership that you talked about earlier, those who were present at the creation of the Cold War: Acheson, Marshall, McCloy, and of course President Truman? How do you compare that with our failure to do this [today]? You're saying the three administrations have failed to do this adequately, both Bushes and Clinton. What's the reason for that failure?

There are several reasons. One, the change didn't come about at the end of some sort of cataclysmic event, there wasn't a world war and then a defining moment, a surrender, a defeat. It's easier to understand change when you look back. Kissinger says there have been five reorderings in the modern world, beginning with the Peace of Westphalia and then onto 1870, then three in the last century, but they all come at the end of major conflicts that are clearly decided, and the end can be clearly seen. The change in the power structure and the effect on society may be crisper, clearer and defined in a moment.

This came about so suddenly. We were unprepared for the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was a whimper rather than an explosion, and then it unleashed all these other things that maybe we didn't grasp, the rise of globalization, the rise of the information age, the migrations and the movements that occurred, the rise of the nonstate actors. All these things began to happen over time and maybe even in some cases very subtle ways. So in their defense, it didn't have that kind of crisp, clear presentation of change.

It seems, especially when you come out of this as the sole remaining superpower, that there is no real threat out there, and some of the threats, again, are hard to connect directly. If somebody's growing poppies or coca leaves somewhere you've got to draw that line to what become heroin and crack on our streets. If someone cannot make a living and not survive and decides, "I need to go where I can," those migrations that occur, you may not see the effects directly and understand that that unstable condition has generated this. Somebody's upset and angry, especially the youth, over their political, economic, social conditions; how that plays into nonstate entities, extremist groups or whatever, that begin to take advantage of that and turn that anger into something hostile that has global reach.

So, it isn't as clear as it used to be. When you thought in terms of your enemies, if you will, your threats were nation states, or coalitions of nation states, or political ideologies. Now it's changed. It's a much greater mix and even more subtle bag of threats.

In that earlier period, as I recall, when they went before the Congress with the Marshall Plan, Vandenberg, who I think was the head of the Foreign Relations Committee advised the administration to scare the hell out of the people to get that legislation passed. Well, we're beyond that now. In a way you could look at how in their limited way the Bush administration tried to "scare the hell" out of people about something that was not a pressing threat. So, I guess the key question becomes, how do you educate people? Because you have to have a constituency for these changes at home.

I don't think fear works in the end. I think what got us through the Second World War was FDR: "All we have to fear is fear itself." The success of the Reagan administration may be that he built a sense of confidence, you have a feeling that "we're going to get through this; the things that we face we're better than; we can overcome it; we may make mistakes but we'll learn from our mistakes and improve." I think the American people want to hear that.

The case you made about initially the fear which certainly was there -- I remember in first grade going to school with a pillowcase because we had to pull it over our heads, dive under the desk, [yet] we ended up building this confidence [in our] ability, that we will prevail, the things we believe in -- democracy, the freedoms that we hold -- eventually will win out. I think what we haven't done, given this administration -- we played to the fear, we haven't done enough about the confidence. Again, this nation hasn't been taken to war, and war may be the wrong metaphor for what we face today because it tends to lead people to believe that it's going to be won or lost on a battlefield somewhere, and I don't believe that's the case here. There will be battles but it's part of a conflict that has many other dimensions, maybe dimensions that will be more effective in determining outcomes than just the military or security side of these sorts of things.

That that's been the mistake. The administration has been groping to define this. Think about what's going on now. They began by calling this the global war on terrorism. We declared a war on a tactic. It doesn't make sense. I mean, FDR didn't declare war on kamikaze attacks, or Wilson on U-boat attacks. They saw it much differently, broader, the scope wider. If you think of it in terms of a tactical level, then you fight it at a tactical level. Osama bin Laden probably understands clearly that his strength comes from this endless flow of angry young men, and the anger is generated by the political, economic, or social set of conditions. If the anger isn't dealt with, then he's not going to have a problem, he may be defeated tactically in some ways, but eventually this thing morphs from an organization to a movement to an ideology, which has happened now over time.

If you don't get the context and you don't understand it, [then] you don't think through how you can overcome it, operate in that environment, succeed, and then communicate your point to the people. You can't underestimate the American people's ability to grasp that. One of the mistakes we made in Vietnam was that the justification became this Gulf of Tonkin ginned-up excuse, and later when that was disproved your credibility's gone. This has been [the same], to be kind: embellished, exaggerated intelligence on weapons of mass destruction and association with al Qaeda that was never there -- I saw intelligence, right up to the day of the war, was never there. The Vice President was talking about Saddam amassing weapons of mass destruction along his borders to threaten his neighbors, I mean, totally untrue, "mushroom clouds," the spin and the evoking of these images that had no basis in intelligence fact. Once that's discredited you've lost the people.

If your rationale for doing this was strategic, and it probably was, you have to explain that strategy. The American people understood the strategy during the Cold War, they understood deterrence and containment, basically, and we operated within that strategy. We've articulated no strategic vision and no description of the new world and its changes. And so, we have a populace that basically still has its mind in the Cold War era, a government that's structured the same way, and we're trying to operate in this different environment and era.

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