General Anthony Zinni Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Military's Role in a Changing World: Conversation with General Anthony C. Zinni, United States Marine Corps (ret.) and former Commander in Chief of the Central Command; 3/6/01, by Harry Kreisler.

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New Transnational Threats

When you left the corps last year, in your final speech you said some interesting things about emerging transnational threats. You said, "In still trying to fight our kind of war, be it World War II or Desert Storm, that is, the wars that were most successful in our past, we ignore the real war-fighting requirements of today." And you mentioned the various operational maneuvers at sea and land battle plans. But you say, "It ain't going to happen that way. We're going to be doing things like humanitarian operations, peacekeeping, and peace enforcement. We'll have to respond to some kind of environmental disaster or put a U.S. Marine or Army battalion in a place on the Golan Heights, embedded in a weird, screwed-up chain of command."

You're suggesting that part of the realism that you were just talking about is looking at the actual situations that we have to deal with in this new world of disorder, as opposed to being prepared to act as if the Cold War were still going on.

I have two favorite quotes, both of them are from Sir John Hackett's book, and they deal with the end of the First World War -- of course, a horrible experience. One British officer said, "Thank God, the war is over. We can get back to real soldiering." And a Russian art student said, "The trouble with wars is that it ruins the army." And, you know, this is almost the mentality we have. We want to fight the "good war." We want to go back to the clean war, where all the criteria were met, the country's behind you, the missions were clear, the causes were noble, the enemy was evil.

It just isn't that kind of world now. The threats are different. They're nontraditional, they're ones we haven't experienced before. The application of the military isn't as direct as we would like, and our theory and doctrine prevent dealing with the reality, which is overlaid and mixed with politics and economics, and humanitarian and cultural issues. It's a very different world out there. And our interest and conflict and instability -- all are defined differently. The nature [of everything] is different, and so the application of military force to this has to change, to adapt to that. We haven't made those changes. We haven't accepted, either politically or in a military sense, the need to develop the techniques and the tactics to deal with this. We've resisted it.

In your farewell address that I just referred to, you went on to say, "In a sense, we're going back to the future, because today's international landscape has some strong similarities to the Caribbean region of the 1920s and 1930s. Unstable countries being driven by uncaring dictators to the point of collapse and total failure. We're going to see more crippled states and failed states that look just like Somalia and Afghanistan, and are just as dangerous."

I think that's true. We have a very real danger of many failed or incapable states that are sort of hot beds or sanctuaries that breathe instability in regions like Afghanistan and Somalia. We have the threats of international terrorism and extremism. We have the tremendous humanitarian catastrophes the could be out there, either man-made or natural, threats to the environment, international crime, non-state entities like Osama Bin Ladin and others who pose threats that were only posed, basically, by nation states before. The asymmetric threats of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of fanatics, not in the hands of accountable nation states, so that you could hold something as a counter-value --that you could strike, but maybe instead, we are dealing with people without state power, like terrorists, and we lack the means to act against them.

So, it's a much different world, and much more difficult to come to grips with. It doesn't lend itself to a clear theory or doctrine on approaching it. Our military has to make the adjustment, and we have to make the decision that the military is going to be used in this environment. If we opt out of that or decide not to, or if the military resists, then what are our options? What are the other ways of dealing with it? We're more interdependent. It's a globalized world. Instability in even remote regions now affects us in one way or another. And we haven't translated this into affecting our national interest and defining it, especially making it clear to the American public.

Let's look at that. Let's talk a little about terrorism, for example. It seems that one of the conundrums as one reviews these events is that as a global power, we're everywhere. And that's a measure of our helping to bring security to the world, on the one hand. But on the other hand, being there makes us a target, that is, the military itself, for terrorist acts to score a point, as opposed to achieving a victory. Is this a problem you have to deal with? How does the military go about dealing with that?

I would just make two points. One, this idea that we're there to bring peace and stability -- I think we ought to be clear that we're there to have peace and stability because it's in our interest. If you lack peace and stability in most parts of the world, it affects our way of life and our economic well being and other things. I mean, this isn't a purely altruistic drill out there.

Secondly, I would say that it isn't just the military, the American military, that's at risk. We had two embassies blown up in my region, in Tanzania and in Kenya. In my region in my time, we had American businessmen killed in Pakistan and Karachi [for] doing business-related things. We've had threats to tourists. We've had tourist targets hit and struck in Egypt, and at the turn of the millennium we had a tremendous terrorist threat against tourists in Jordan that was uncovered. And, obviously, the Jordanians and Pakistanis and others did a great job in dealing and coming to grips with that.

It isn't just the American military that's at risk. And it isn't just Americans. We can harden the American military and resist mightily the ability to attack us; we're just going to pass the attack off to something else, or someone else. And those attacks are not in our interest. We begin to believe or convey this idea to the American military; then the tendency is we can resolve the problem if we withdraw. If we withdraw, these attacks will go somewhere else. And when we withdraw, we will then permit instability and we will feel the effects back here.

Okay, let's broaden this context. What do we need to do? In response to these very different kinds of terrorist threats, is it a question of reconfiguring our forces? Is it a question of having better intelligence? Is it a question of having better resources? You seem also to be suggesting it's a question of educating the American people about what the problem is.

All those things you suggest are treating the symptoms of terrorism. Attacking the terrorist, becoming more aware of the threat, those are at the symptoms. You have to go back to the root cause. I don't believe that the vast majority of terrorists do what they do out of some fanatical motivation, religious or political belief. It's usually because we have a part of the world that's traumatized; that, through humanitarian or political conditions that are very, very poor, we have a number of young people, usually young men, who are disenfranchised, who are radicalized, dissatisfied, who want to strike out at something. Some political condition, economic or human condition, has made them that way. And they find refuge in sanctuaries, usually in places like Afghanistan and Somalia where there is no rule of law, no nation state that's viable, no existing state, usually a failed or incapable state. And they find refuge among extremist groups that will give rationale to the cause, be it religious or otherwise. But the real underlying ability to recruit has to be in an environment where these other conditions exist.

There's nothing in Islam that supports extremism and terrorism. Like there's nothing in Christianity, but you still find, obviously, Christian extremists. So it isn't a religious thing. It isn't an ethnic thing. I really think it traces back to a root cause that we ought to learn to deal with. We don't deal with these well. We don't invest in regions. We don't invest in the stability in regions. The way we go about foreign assistance, foreign aid, in helping others help themselves deal with these problems is woefully inadequate.

You're talking about ensuring an economic development that gives more equality of benefit so that people have a commitment to stability, as opposed to training the military.

I think that's in our interest. Well, I think both. I mean, obviously, a part of this development is the ability to provide for your own security and to do it in the right way and with security forces that respect human rights, that do address the hearts and minds and aren't oppressive in the way they apply force, because they just exacerbate the problem if they do that.

But it's in our interest to see economic stability, political stability in regions of the world. We can't allow instability in regions of the world that we depend on, that we must access because we depend on raw materials, freedom of navigation. In these places we aren't going to allow instability, or [limit our] option to direct involvement. There has to be something in between, either an unstable situation and the application of military force, something has to come in between that. And I think it's investing in the stability of the region and investing in the region's ability to help itself.

A classic example of where we did it right was post - World War II Europe. The classic example where we did it wrong was post - World War I Europe. After the Second World War, the Marshall Plan, the investment in eliminating the thing that caused the First and Second World Wars. Where we do invest in this, where we make the commitment, where we help others help themselves, we tend to succeed. Where we intend to become directly involved is where we have a tendency not to succeed. Where we're using military force directly, that doesn't work as well for us.

So this discussion, in essence, leads back to the issue of educating broader constituencies in American society about the complexities of these international dilemmas.

I don't think we've ever convinced the American people that it's not in our interest to be isolationists. Our tendency for the first century, maybe century-and-a-half of our existence was to be isolationists, to hide behind the two mighty oceans, to become self-sufficient, and to follow Washington's caution not to become involved in foreign entanglements and alliances.

But the world changed, especially after the middle of this century, where we became the dominant global power, where our interests became intertwined with the rest of the world, where we're affected by things out there. And so, we have a leadership responsibility. Kissinger talked about the dilemma we always face in trying to decide whether we're going to be the beacon or the crusader. The beacon just serves, as Jefferson said, as "the shining example" -- "everybody follow us." The crusader -- later, the Marshalls and the Eisenhowers talked about a crusade in Europe and talked about direct involvement. The crusader gets involved and tries to change things. And I don't mean that that should only be militarily.

This nation has to decide which one it's going to choose. You can't straddle that fence. We can't have congressmen taking pride in not owning passports, who resist [involvement] and then complain when destabilizing things happen around the world, and then hold military people accountable who haven't been given the permission or the wherewithal, the resources, to engage and to shape things out there, to change them from the beginning. You can't just answer everything with the application of force. By the time you have to apply force, there's already been a failure, and you're trying to pull your chestnuts out in the worst possible way.

One looks at your vitae and the places you've been involved. Humanitarian assistance was a major item in your portfolio -- the Kurdish case, Somalia, and on and on. What have you learned and what have we learned about what we have to be prepared to do in the world?

The first thing we learned is the military has limited capability. We, obviously, bring a lot logistically and we can stabilize a situation very rapidly. We are a good short-term solution. We are a good temporary solution. We can create a condition. We can freeze a condition. We can create a secure environment. We are not a long-term solution. We can go into a humanitarian crises and probably do the immediate required triage and the immediate required care. We can't provide for eliminating the causes of that condition, and to rebuild nations, rebuild economies, eliminate a long-term internal strife and squabbling. Then you begin to overlay this with politics, economics, nation building. And that becomes difficult. It's not something our military is very good at doing. It's something that we resist.

We can be part of that solution in the long-term. It takes a lot to commit to it. I think we need more involvement and capability in our international organizations like the UN to do that. It would be nice if we owned up to our responsibilities there. And if we want to see change and we want to see burden sharing, then we need to support the organizations that can create that capability. But the military alone as an ultimate solution to these problems [rather] than an immediate fix to an emergency problem is not a good solution.

How do we educate some of our political leaders about the need for multilateral involvement? Some American leaders don't want that, they want the U.S. to just go in under its own command.

I don't think that's a good idea, and I don't think most American political leaders think it's a good idea. We go out of our way to gain international legitimacy. We seek that UN resolution. We seek coalitions of the willing to accompany us in there. As a matter of fact, one of the burdens military people have is the multiple flags you have to deal with. Oftentimes, people that commit forces to the operation that bring nothing positive or of value to the operation become more of a burden. But the value of the flag and the value of the international community being behind the cause is considered important. I think it is. And sometimes you make some allowances for that. We should always seek that. We should seek it not only because it's wise in terms of burden sharing, but it gives us international legitimacy. It helps train others and bring them into accountability for, especially, things in their region that need to be stabilized and cared for.

Should we do that under multilateral command? Or do you not see that as a problem?

I don't see that American forces can be under command other than the U.S. And I think you can make the arrangements so that doesn't happen. The political umbrella has to be, usually, an international organization. In some cases, it could be the UN. Where we have strong alliances and build the right command relationships, like NATO, then it can be arranged and our forces can be under NATO command. Because, obviously, we have Americans in the ultimate command positions in NATO, too.

Elsewhere, we ought to look at American support, where we train, organize and equip, and help others. When the emergency comes, we provide support functions like intelligence, strategic lift, logistics, communications, but we build the capability for others to do it. Places like Africa might be a classic example. We have some countries that are very willing to commit forces. Kenya was a good example, and Sierra Leone. But they need equipment, they need training. There are political organizations on the continent there -- ECOMOG, the EAU, and others, that want to develop a capability. We just aren't forthcoming enough with the resources and the training and providing the understanding on how to deal with this to make it viable, where we don't have to step in, and where we can be more in a support role.

So we have to look at regions of the world and decide whether it's ultimately a NATO; whether it's an organization alliance we're committed to; whether it's a place where we have a conditional alliance, like we do in the Persian Gulf, where it's important to us and where we will take a leadership role and put troops on the ground; or whether it will be a place where we will help develop and support the mission under some entity, but not be directly involved with boots on the ground.

So, flexibility ...

Yes.

... and thoughtful purpose in acting differently in different places.

And a focused regionalization. Look at the region, look at our national interest, our willingness to commit and support operations. You know: what will the market bear? And then develop the capability based on that. I do think we can develop those capabilities. There are those that argue that, "Well, if Americans don't put boots on the ground in at-risk, the others won't follow." I don't agree. You see that in Africa. You can see it in Sierra Leone. We could have supported that operation and helped train and build the force to deal with that. They're in there now and committed. But they're ill equipped to handle it.

The other item that has been in your portfolio is a case where it looks more like the old mission, and that is dealing with rogue states like Iraq. What have we learned there? What have you learned in your experience? This is clearly a place where force, in the traditional sense, has to matter. But there is this frustration of being constrained in getting the job completely done, whatever that is. I mean, it's a moving target. Comment on what lesson you think we should have learned for this new problem set in the post - Cold War world?

We're always going to be confronted with the problem of regional rogue states -- people like Saddam Hussein or Kim Il Song -- Kim Jong Il, now -- and others who have designs to either dominate the region or to do something that's destabilizing in the region. How do we deal with these? Obviously, one option is the application of force, and to resolve it through force. And, ultimately, take the capital and change the regime. Or, as we did in the case of the Gulf War, at least eliminate the threat and then deal with the problems of the regime remaining.

If we're going to adopt sanctions and containment, we have to understand that that's long-term. It's very messy. It's tough to get support. It has its ups and downs. Strangely enough, we've been successful with containment. We contained Cuba, North Korea, the Soviet Union, for almost fifty years. But containment is messy. It's expensive. It presents political problems. There's always a series of crises that mount during that. It's tough to keep an international coalition together to maintain it, and we tend to end up being alone, almost, as we are now with the exception of, perhaps, the British and some of the Gulf states that support our mission in Iraq.

But we have to be clear as to what we're going to do over the long term. If we're going to accept containment, we need to accept it for the long term. If we're going to accept a military solution to the problem in the short term, then we've got to take it through to its conclusion. We need to avoid schemes. We need to avoid things like we tried to do at the Bay of Pigs, and things we're trying to do now with the Iraqi opposition and covert operations. We don't do those things very well. We aren't great co-meisters, and we tend to run into disasters. It's not in our nature. It's poor for a democracy to do that. It's tough to garner international support for that or regional acceptance of that. And so we ought to get off those kinds of things. In other words, decide on what will work, what level of political support and political will we have to do it. And if not, what can we fall back to? And then, the willingness to accept that, if it's something like containment and sanctions.

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