September 22, 2003
By George C. Wilson,National Journal
In the White House, at the Pentagon, and in some of the caves in Foggy Bottom, they hate him and his kind. But Tony Zinni—the scrappy kid from South Philadelphia who grew up to be a boat-rocking Marine general who ran everything from the Mogadishu police department in Somalia to the entire U.S. Central Command that controls all U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf—is just what we need in this day of the Imperial Presidency and rubber-stamp Congress. Zinni's bayonet-like thrusts into President Bush's Iraq policies, combined with the points that Daniel Ellsberg makes in his new book, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, help mightily to disabuse us of the idea that the president always knows best.
In a Sept. 4 speech in Arlington, Va., to a forum sponsored by the U.S. Naval Institute and the Marine Corps Association, Zinni talked about the parallels between the Vietnam era and the war in Iraq. "We heard the garbage and the lies," Zinni said of the rhetoric from the White House during Vietnam, "and we saw the sacrifice. And we swore: Never again would we allow it to happen. And I ask you, 'Is it happening again?' "
Conflicts today, Zinni said, cannot be divided into two separate phases, the shooting and the peacekeeping parts. The war plan for the combat and the aftermath has to be "seamless," the retired four-star argued to the audience of Marine and Navy officers. "We have no plan" for finishing the job in Iraq, he asserted. And in an apparent hit on Bush's declaration in May that the Iraq mission was accomplished, Zinni said, "At the end of the third inning, we declared victory and said the game's over. It ain't over. It isn't going to be over in future wars."
It was Zinni's criticism of Bush's performance in Iraq that understandably caught the headlines. But his larger message received too little attention. Either the United States must arm itself with a powerful and professional peacekeeping bureaucracy, he said, one with plenty of money and people who are experts at reviving a drowning nation, or we will continue to lose in the long run the wars we "win" in the short run. Not since President Truman, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, and George Marshall mobilized organizations and dollars to resuscitate Europe after World War II has the United States won a war all the way, Zinni contended.
If the "suits" won't meld the war fighting and the peacekeeping, Zinni said of civilian leaders, then let the military do it through its regional commanders. Conceding that the idea probably has military leaders "shaking in their boots," he said that regional commanders, if they get the mission, should rebuild and govern the nations that the United States invades "while the shooting is still going on. Reconstruction people should have come into Baghdad right behind the Marines," he said.
Zinni, who took off his uniform in 2000, is no dilettante; no theoretical think-tanker. He has immersed himself in the cultures of the world's hot spots, both as a soldier and as a troubleshooter for the State Department. His preference is for a civilian-run, latter-day Marshall Plan for Iraq and Afghanistan. But he noted that State is so outgunned by the Pentagon in dollars and people—there are more U. S. military musicians in Europe than U. S. diplomats, he said—that this must-do job may have to be done by the military. If so, the generals and admirals would be "truly proconsuls" who would "set regional policy," Zinni said. And military officers would have to be trained to handle that new kind of mission.
Zinni is worth listening to about Iraq because he is precisely the kind of onetime insider turned dissenting outsider who can question a president's policies with intelligence and insight. Modern presidents are isolated by all the power they have accumulated, and Congress has largely given up its power to decide when and why we wage war.
Ellsberg, like Zinni a former marine who knows war firsthand, discovered when he was inside the Pentagon during Vietnam that aides often recoiled from challenging the president on his policies. Dissenting views rarely filtered into the Oval Office. Ellsberg concluded that only outsiders with credible credentials could influence a modern-day president to change course. He made that case in regard to Vietnam-era presidents, but it is just as relevant to Iraq and President Bush:
"The concentration of power within the executive branch since World War II had focused nearly all responsibility for policy 'failure' upon one man, the president," Ellsberg writes. "At the same time, it gave him enormous capability to avert or postpone or conceal such personal failure by means of force and fraud.... That power could not fail to corrupt the human who held it. The only way to change the president's course was to bring pressure on him from outside.... "
As one of the first newsmen to read the Pentagon Papers that Ellsberg leaked more than 30 years ago, I realized that they confirmed my worst fears about the Imperial Presidency. Today, I say amen to Ellsberg's thesis and hooray for the Zinnis who tell us when the emperor has no clothes. We need these informed dissidents more than ever in this era of pre-emptive warfare, when the shooting and destruction by our unrivaled military is the easy part, and the reconstruction is the real challenge.