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Meet the Press Transcript: Gen. Tony Zinni
MSNBC
April 2, 2006

MR. RUSSERT: Former CENTCOM commander retired General Tony Zinni and his new book, "Battle For Peace," after this station break.

MR. RUSSERT: And we are back.

General Zinni, welcome to MEET THE PRESS.

GEN. ZINNI: Thank you, Tim.

MR. RUSSERT: And we're going to talk about your book, "Battle For Peace."

Let me bring you back to 1998, and this is what General Tony Zinni had to say:

"I think a weakened, fragmented, chaotic Iraq - which could happen if this isn't done carefully - is more dangerous in the long run than a contained Saddam is now. ... I don't think these questions have been thought through or answered." Is that what we have now?

GEN. ZINNI: I think so. I think we are paying the price for the lack of credible planning, or the lack of a plan. We're throwing away 10 years worth of planning, in effect, for underestimating the situation we were going to get into, for not adhering to the advice that was being given to us by others, and, I think, getting distracted from Afghanistan and the war on terrorism that we were committed to when we took on this adventure.

MR. RUSSERT: If you were the president of the United States right now, what would you do about Iraq?

GEN. ZINNI: Well, unfortunately, Iraq is—we can't let it fall apart. It is part of a whole myriad of issues that we have regarding stability in the Middle East. We're committed to it now. We have to see this through. I think we have to get this government to form some sort of unity representative government. We keep pressuring them to do this. They keep avoiding the pressure, which I don't understand. We have to, obviously, make a decision on the militias. They seem to be part of the problem that we're not addressing. We're, we're trying to develop a military and a police force that can handle this problem. I think one of the elements that's missing in this is building up the intelligence capability.

You know, the, the number of insurgents, so-called insurgents, although it's a mixed bag of problems that we face, could be dealt with if the people turned against them. If, like General Casey said a week or so ago, 99.9 percent of the people are opposed to the violence and the perpetrators of these violence. Well, all those people have to do is call up on the phone and tell you where the insurgents are, tell you in the two to four provinces that everybody said this is concentrated in where the issues are, where the problems are, where the people that are doing this are, and you wouldn't need much more than you have right now. And the security forces and the Iraqis would be able to handle it. We're not fighting the Waffen SS here. You know, we're fighting a bunch of ragtag people with AK-47s and IEDs and RPGs. They can be policed up if the people turn against them. We haven't won the hearts and minds yet.

MR. RUSSERT: So they're being enabled by the population.

GEN. ZINNI: You know, they need amongst the population—this is classic insurgency—they need either fear, apathy or support, sympathy. If they get a combination of those three—and right now they have a combination. If there's a viable government, there's an opportunity for jobs, if there's a program that shows hope for the future for their children, they're going to turn against these people. We haven't given them that in three years.

MR. RUSSERT: Is Iraq more dangerous now than it was with Saddam?

GEN. ZINNI: Well, it can be. I mean, this is like comparing heart disease with cancer. You know, you may cure one; neither one is good. The—probably the good news in all this is the potential for Iraq to come out of this better off is there, where there was no hope under Saddam. But the problem is that we've wasted three years here. They may go, in the worst case, through a period that looks something like Lebanon did in the ‘80s. And it may take them a while—five, 10 years of this kind of violence and destructive behavior, sectarian violence that they perpetrate on each other, for them to get out of this. And I think we lost ground when we had an opportunity in the beginning to freeze this situation and gain control, and we let all these snakes come out.

MR. RUSSERT: In your book, and I'll quote from it, "The Battle For Peace," it says, "Our current war in Iraq may be turning into a repetition of Vietnam. The military out there goes from operation to operation, our leaders in Washington assure us we are powering ahead from success to success; yet our young nineteen or twenty-year-old soldiers are now asking hard questions: ‘I can win any battle; but am I winning this war?'

"I've heard these questions before in Vietnam. The answer there was ‘No.'

"My answer for Iraq is, ‘I don't know.' Nobody can tell our soldiers if they're winning or not. But the parallels are disturbing." Explain.

GEN. ZINNI: Well, you know, you can see almost every day on TV a young lieutenant colonel, colonel, a young sergeant that's out there trying to make a difference that tells you that, in this village, in this province, "My unit is connecting to the people. We're trying hard." The frustration is they leave and the next unit in may not repeat it. They're successful, but there is no national program that takes hold. All their efforts out there at the local level, the successes that they're trying to achieve on the scene aren't solidified into some national movement forward.

The, the remarkable similarities to Vietnam is I saw in places in Vietnam where we were making a difference in the villages, where we had programs that innovative commanders were exercising, where there were troops that were dedicated to changing the lives of the Vietnamese. Meanwhile, back in Saigon, we had the revolving generals, coup after coup, while we sat there and watched, and this wasn't the kind of government that the people felt they could risk their lives for.

What I'm saying is don't mistake the efforts of the troops on the ground. We just saw Colonel McMasters, Tal Afar, we know General Petraeus, General Mattis, others that have made a difference on the ground. But that's like putting your foot in a bucket of water. You pull it out, no one's going to know you were there unless there is a national program, a belief in that government in Baghdad, a hope for the future, a belief that staying together as united Iraq is better for these people in the long run. That has to come from a strategic plan, from a, a set of policies emerging out of Washington and Baghdad. It isn't going to be built from the bottom up, from the Anbar provinces, and the Ramadis and the Mosuls out there.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you believe the American media is distorting the news from Iraq, or presenting an accurate picture?

GEN. ZINNI: Well, I think the American media's being made a scapegoat for what's going on out there. At last count, I think something like 80 journalists have been killed in Iraq. It's hard to get outside the green zone and not risk your life, or risk kidnapping, at a minimum, to get the story. And it's hard to blame the media for no good stories when the security situation is such that they can't even go out and get the good stories without risking their lives. And you have to remember that it's hard to dwell on the good things when the bad things are so overwhelmingly traumatic and catastrophic, you know?  So I think that's an unfair blame that's put on the media. I think that there probably are good things at the lower level, but are they balanced out by the bad things that are happening?  All the good things happening out there will mean nothing if the unity government doesn't come together.

MR. RUSSERT: I want to bring you back to a book you co-wrote with Tom Clancy called "Battle Ready." And you wrote this: "In the lead-up to the Iraq war and its later conduct, I saw, at a minimum, true dereliction, negligence, and irresponsibility; at worst, lying, incompetence, and corruption." That's very serious.

GEN. ZINNI: Yes.

MR. RUSSERT: Where did you see that?  At what level?

GEN. ZINNI: Well, I—first of all, I saw it in the way the intelligence was being portrayed. I knew the intelligence; I saw it right up to the day of the war. I was asked at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing a month before the war if I thought the threat was imminent. I didn't. Many of the people I know that were involved in the intelligence side of this, or, or in the military felt the same way. I saw the—what this town is known for: spin, cherry-picking facts, using metaphors to evoke certain emotional responses, or, or shading the, the context. We, we know the mushroom clouds and, and the other things that were all described that the media's covered well. I saw on the ground, though, a sort of walking away from 10 years worth of planning.

You know, ever since the end of the first Gulf War, there have been—there's been planning by serious officers and planners and others, and policies put in place. Ten years worth of planning, you know, were thrown away; troop levels dismissed out of hand; General Shinseki basically insulted for speaking the truth and giving a, an honest opinion; the lack of cohesive approach to how we deal with the aftermath; the political, economic, social reconstruction of a nation, which is no small task; a belief in these exiles that anyone in the region, anyone that had any knowledge would tell you were not credible on the ground; and on and on and on. Decisions to disband the army that were not in the initial plans. I mean there's a series of disastrous mistakes. We just heard the secretary of state say these were tactical mistakes. These were not tactical mistakes. These were strategic mistakes, mistakes of policy made back here. Don't blame the troops. They're the ones that perform the tactics on the ground. They've been magnificent. If anything saves this, it will be them.

MR. RUSSERT: Should someone resign?

GEN. ZINNI: Absolutely.

MR. RUSSERT: Who?

GEN. ZINNI: Secretary of defense, to begin with.

MR. RUSSERT: Anyone else?

GEN. ZINNI: Well, I think that, that we—that those that have been responsible for the planning, for overriding all the, the efforts that were made in planning before that, that those that stood by and allowed this to happen, that didn't speak out. And there are appropriate ways within the system you can speak out, at congressional hearings and otherwise. I think they have to be held accountable.

The point is, those that are in power now that have been part of this are finding that their time is spent defending the past. And if they have to defend the past, they're unable to make the kinds of changes, adjustments, admit the mistakes and move on. And that's where we are now, trying to rewrite history, defend the past, ridiculous statements that, "Well, wait 20 years and history will tell you how this turns out." Well, I don't think anybody wants 20 years to continue like it is now.

MR. RUSSERT: Should the president say to the country, "I was wrong about weapons of mass destruction, wrong about troop levels, wrong about the cost of the war, wrong about the level of insurgency. But we need to put all that behind us and come together as a nation, because this is too important to lose"?

GEN. ZINNI: I, I think the president of the United States ought to certainly say that there were mistakes made at each of those levels. In some cases, these were presented to him. It may not be necessarily the case that he was wrong. He was given bad information. Every president in history has held people accountable and moved on. Look at President Lincoln in the conduct of the war. He went through every general till he found Grant. Senator McCain mentioned Douglas MacArthur. Well, when he screwed up, the president relieved him. You know, you have to make tough choices. You know, integrity and getting on with the mission and doing it right is more important than loyalty. Both are great traits, but integrity, honesty and performance and competence have to outweigh, in this business, loyalty.

MR. RUSSERT: I want to bring you back to August 26, 2002. The Veterans of Foreign War had a convention, a meeting. Vice President Cheney was the guest speaker. You were honored, as you can see the medal around your neck there. This is what the vice president said on that day.

(Videotape, August 26, 2002):

VICE PRES. DICK CHENEY: Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is not doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: After that event, The Washington Post captured your thinking in a conversation with you. "Cheney's certitude bewildered [retired General Tony] Zinni. ... ‘In my time at CENTCOM, I watched the intelligence, and never - not once - did it say, "He has WMD."' Though retired for nearly two years, Zinni says, he remained current on the intelligence through his consulting with the CIA and the military. ‘I did consulting work for the agency, right up to the beginning of the war. I never saw anything. I'd say to analysts, "Where's the threat?"' Their response, he recalls, was, ‘Silence.' Zinni's concern deepened as Cheney pressed on. ... Zinni's conclusion as he slowly walked off the stage was that the Bush administration was determined to go to war. A moment later, he had another, equally chilling thought: ‘These guys don't understand what they're getting into.'" Why did you think that on that day?

GEN. ZINNI: Well, first of all, prior to that, I heard the president say because this—these rumors of debates and people pushing for this entry into Iraq that the president said, "Well, look, I'm going to listen to the debate, and then I'll look at the intelligence." First of all, I thought that was a little backwards, but I said, "Well, the president hasn't made up his mind to this point, and when he looks at the intelligence, takes an honest look at it, when he hears the debate, he'll realize that this isn't something that should be done now, and it should—and if you're going to do it, you would do it in a way to try to restart the United Nations process, go back to what President Bush 41 had done."

But what I heard on that stage today, or that day was not the case of restarting that process in any serious way. I heard the case being built to go to war right away. And what bothered me, I had been hearing about some of the assumptions on the planning, dismissal of the for—previous plans, and I was hearing a depiction of the intelligence that didn't fit what I knew. There was no solid proof, that I ever saw, that Saddam had WMD.

Now, I'd be the first to say we had to assume he had WMD left over that wasn't accounted for: artillery rounds, chemical rounds, a SCUD missile or two. But these things, over time, degrade. These things did not present operational or strategic level threats at best. Plus, we were watching Saddam with an army that had caved in. It was nothing like the Gulf War army. It was a shell of its former self. We knew we could go through it quickly. We'd stripped away his air defenses. He was at our mercy. We had air superiority before we even—or actually air supremacy before we would even start an operation. So to say that this threat was imminent or grave and gathering, seemed like a great exaggeration to me.

MR. RUSSERT: The president, the secretary of state, all said he was not contained, he was not in a box, that he was a madman.

GEN. ZINNI: Well, I think that's—that is an insult to the troops who, for 10 years, ran the containment: those brave pilots who flew the no-fly zones, those sailors who enforced the maritime intercept operations, our soldiers and Marines that were on the ground out there that responded to every crisis, our support for the efforts of the inspectors that were in there. You know, we—we had less troops on a day-to-day basis out there than go to work at the Pentagon every day doing this. And these were not assigned troops to CENTCOM. These were troops that rotated in and out. We had allies out there that helped foot the bill for this, $300 million dollars to $500 million dollars a year supporting us with bases, supporting us with overflights, supporting us with assistance in kind, joining us in places like Somalia and the Balkans when we required coalition troops. I thought the containment worked remarkably well, and it was a tribute to our troops and how they handled it.

MR. RUSSERT: The overall thesis in your book, "Battle for Peace," you write it this way, "I had also heard the secretary"—excuse me. Let me go back to the—put it on the screen there if we can. And if we can put—there it is. "The ‘Battle for Peace' is not a battle in the classical sense - a battle that follows the sudden crisis blow that triggers a military conflict. The battle is the constant struggle to develop and build the measures, programs, systems, and institutions that will prevent crisis. The battle is the constant struggle to shape and manage the harmful elements in the environment that generate instabilities.

"The ‘Battle for Peace' is the battle to achieve a stable world."

The president's dream is democracy, around the world and the Middle East. What happens to countries like Iraq, countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or in the Palestine area when Hamas is elected?  Does democracy necessarily bring about a desired result from America's security interests?

GEN. ZINNI: Well, first of all, you have to understand how you instill democracy. It isn't an election. An election doesn't equal democracy. Think about it. We need an educated electorate. We need political parties that are transparent, that people understand their platforms, that compete in a fair process. We have to have a governmental system that people are voting into, and they have to understand that, and then you can have elections. We've sort of reversed the process.

Look what's happened in Iraq. We've had three elections now, and we don't have a government yet that can stand up. There aren't people that, I think, really understood what they voted for. I saw a scene in Basra, one of the elections, where a woman ran in so excited about voting, and then she asked the poll tender, "Who do I vote for?" And he told her she—he couldn't tell her, but he had to read a list to her of 169 parties. She was confused. When he hit number seven that said the Islamic party of something or other, she said, "That's the one." I mean, is that democracy?  Are they voting how they're told at, at Friday prayers?  Are they voting for sectarian leaders that dominate their lives?  Do they truly understand what it's all about?

It's not just democracy. It's economic development. It's social reform. This takes time, takes an investment from the stable part of the world and the unstable part of the world to establish these.

MR. RUSSERT: General Tony Zinni, we thank you for joining us.

GEN. ZINNI: Thank you, Tim.

MR. RUSSERT: Thank you for "Battle for Peace." And we'll be watching.

GEN. ZINNI: Thank you, Tim.

MR. RUSSERT: We'll be right back.

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