Gen. Anthony Zinni

Zelig goes to the Middle East.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

Can Gen. Anthony Zinni go from war-maker to peacemaker? For four years he served as the regional commander in chief, or CINC, for the U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in 25 countries from the Horn of Africa to the Middle East and Central Asia. Now, Zinni has returned to the region to attempt to quell the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in his new role as U.S. envoy to the Middle East. They say if you want peace, prepare for war. The Bush administration hopes Zinni’s soldierly background makes him the incarnation of that maxim.

The transition isn’t as dramatic as you might think. Not long after Zinni was handed the reins at U.S. Central Command (the position now held by Army Gen. Tommy Franks), a retired Marine colonel told the Wall Street Journal that he was “the Marines’ premier war fighter,” a man who “knows how to kick ass.” But in fact the modern military man’s résumé is studded with peace-mongering.

With the exception of the four days of airstrikes he coordinated against Iraq in December 1998, Zinni’s best-known military exploits involve humanitarian and peacekeeping missions. He missed the central conflicts since Vietnam, including the Gulf War and Bosnia. His only role in the 1991 campaign against Iraq was to direct relief efforts to the Kurds after the war was over. When he oversaw the military’s 1995 withdrawal from Somalia, he pioneered the use of non-lethal weapons such as “beanbag shotguns” and an immobilizing foam that could suppress rioters without killing them. He’s fought famines, administered earthquake relief, and resettled refugees. He’s even predicted that the military will eventually play a role in protecting the environment. His “Twenty Lessons,” culled from these types of operations, serve as a sort of Rumsfeld’s Rules for nontraditional military operations.

If America is Imperial Rome, Zinni has been one of the empire’s provincial governors. A few years back, a Washington Post series on the various CINCs took its name from the general’s term for their role: “The Proconsuls.” Much of the job involves establishing personal relationships with the monarchs and dictators who rule most of the countries in the region, then using those relationships to help coordinate U.S. operations. One friendship he developed has served him particularly well: Pakistani Gen. Pervez Musharraf, whose first phone call to an American official after his 1999 coup was to Zinni.

Throughout his career, Zinni was the Zelig of the military, transforming himself according to whatever culture he immersed himself in. In Vietnam, he worked as an adviser to the Vietnamese Marines, living among them and speaking their language. The experience drove home the lesson that the military must understand a culture in order to understand conflict. “After living daily with the Vietnamese for a year, it became evident to me, even as an inexperienced officer, that we really did not understand the Vietnam War or how the South and North Vietnamese viewed the war,” he told Irene Burgo in a 1998 profile for the alumni magazine of his alma mater, Villanova. “Very few people had those insights because we had no depth of knowledge. Nor did they look at the conflict from the Vietnamese perspective.” This attitude leads Zinni sometimes to sound more like a multi-culti than a military general. He told the Washington Post, of his experience in Somalia, “You could make decisions that made sense in our western framework, and miss the whole point of the culture.”

But what happens when a chameleon confronts plaid? When Zinni was named to his current position last fall, the foreign-policy establishment applauded while surreptitiously muttering “poor bastard.” The reason varies depending on whom you ask (blame Arafat, blame Sharon, blame Bush, blame all three), but everyone agrees that Zinni’s task is a thankless one. For now, he hasn’t brought any new ideas to the negotiations, and it’s not clear that the two parties have any interest in negotiating in the first place. “If one of the biblical figures descended at this point, the two sides probably couldn’t be brought together,” says Richard Fairbanks, chief negotiator for the Middle East peace process during the Reagan administration.

Zinni possesses a characteristic that as a rule is not highly valued among the Bushies: When he thinks a policy isn’t working, he’s not afraid to talk out of turn. During the Clinton administration, Defense Week reported that he used his political skills to subvert the wishes of his Pentagon superiors, lobbying Congress to appropriate money for a new plane that his bosses didn’t want. He also spoke out against the administration’s plan to arm Iraqi opposition groups, dubbing the idea the “Bay of Goats.” And he openly criticized the administration’s arms-length treatment of Musharraf after the general seized power in Pakistan. Three days after Sept. 11, Zinni weighed in again (this time as a retired general), emphasizing the need in Afghanistan for the “nation-building” that Bush scorned during his presidential campaign. “A military approach that strikes and leaves will only perpetuate the problem,” he told the Post.

The arrival next week of another soldier-turned-diplomat—Colin Powell—may provide Zinni some cover to say what he thinks. There’s hope that Zinni’s frank demeanor and his personal knowledge of both the military and the region will allow him to recognize BS when he has to—if Sharon makes a phony security claim, or if Arafat invents bogus political pressures from within Palestine. And that’s something in short supply in the region, hope.