War Stories

Gen. Zinni’s Job Application

Which position in the next administration is he angling for?

Gunning for Rummy’s job?

It’s fairly clear that Anthony Zinni would like a big job in the next administration, and it would be a smart move for the next president to give him one. My suggestion: Make him secretary of defense.

Zinni, of course, is the retired Marine general who’s made a huge splash criticizing the Bush administration’s war in Iraq—from the decision to go to war (which Zinni opposed in 2002) to the setting of troop levels (which, like many officers, he considered too low) to the planning for the occupation (which he decries as “screwed up“).

He has expressed his views—in surprisingly harsh language for a retired general—in speeches, TV interviews, and most recently in a new book, Battle Ready, which he wrote with Tom Clancy and Clancy’s ghostwriter Tony Koltz. Zinni’s already-much-quoted passage from this book:

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. False rationales, presented as a justification; a flawed strategy; lack of planning; the unnecessary alienation of our allies; the underestimation of the task; the unnecessary distraction from real threats; and the unbearable strain dumped on our overstretched military.

The significance of this attack cannot be overstated. Zinni was no ordinary general. His final posting, before retiring in 2000, was commander in chief of U.S. Central Command—the command that, under his successor, Gen. Tommy Franks, ran the war in Iraq. Through his 40-year military career, Zinni was director of operations for the Somalia task force (before and after the Mogadishu disaster, but not during), head of the Marines’ counterterrorism unit, commander in chief of U.S. European Command, deputy commandant of the Marine Corps, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, director of various training and doctrine commands, and a decorated Vietnam veteran. Finally, from 2002-03, Secretary of State Colin Powell named Zinni to be his special envoy to the Middle East

In short, Zinni is the very model of a modern general—a warrior-intellectual, adept at fighting battles, commanding divisions, planning strategy and tactics, undertaking massive logistical feats, and engaging in global diplomacy.

For all these reasons, many Democrats hope Kerry will put him on the team. The bad news, from this angle, is that Zinni hasn’t made the requisite first moves: He’s pointedly stopped short of criticizing Bush personally, calling instead for his advisers to resign; nor has he endorsed Kerry. The good news is that he’s all but shouting from the rooftops, “I’m available!”

Battle Ready is the fourth volume in Tom Clancy’s biographical series on American commanders (part of it written in Clancy’s voice, part of it in Zinni’s), but much of it reads like an extended CV for a Cabinet-level slot in a Democratic administration. Even the title is suggestive: “Battle Ready” for what, after all?

Paul Van Riper, * a fellow outspoken retired Marine general, who lives near Zinni in Virginia and talks with him every day, confirmed in a phone conversation Tuesday that his friend wouldn’t turn up his nose at a good offer. “I don’t think he’s actively seeking any position, but there are probably positions that he would take,” Gen. Van Riper said. “He’s not the kind of person who’s completely retired.”

Another retired general, who’s known Zinni for decades but asked not to be identified, went further: “I think he’s in full campaign mode.”

Some Democrats have gone so far as to pine for a Kerry-Zinni ticket. But this seems implausible and unwise. First, Zinni is a Republican. He endorsed Bush in 2000 (though he now regrets it). Many Democrats might cheer for John McCain as running mate because he’s known, well-liked, broadly admired, and he clearly can’t stand Bush. Zinni, apart from his harsh critique of the war, is a question mark. Second, we’ve already seen one retired general, Wesley Clark—such a promising candidate on paper—flame out on the campaign trail. There’s no reason to think Zinni would prove more appealing.

Zinni has also been mentioned as a possible secretary of state. In some respects, he would come to the job with more on-the-ground experience than Gen. Colin Powell did. Military commanders in chief, or CINCs, often cut a higher profile than ambassadors these days, and Zinni was CINC for all Europe and the Middle East, as well as a commander or operations director in the Pacific and North Africa.

His book is full of sales pitches for such a job. “During my time as CINC,” he writes, “I was asked to carry out presidential and other diplomatic missions that would normally have fallen to diplomats.” In Somalia, for example, “I was on the political, security, judicial, police, and other committees.” Clancy throws in his own letter of recommendation: “He participated in several … military-civil operations, peacekeeping and humanitarian missions. No one has had more experience in these kinds of operations than Zinni.”

Other applicant’s-checklist issues: Zinni values allies. “The allied contributions to Provide Comfort were significant. The French [were] superb.” As for coalitions, “No nation today can go it alone—economically, politically, diplomatically, culturally, or religiously.” “Building viable, interoperable coalitions with the forces of regional allies will remain necessary to ensure our security.” What about the United Nations? “[Kofi] Annan is a tremendously impressive human being with a rare intellect and the common sense to handle the most complex situations.”

But can Zinni—a maverick, a hell-raiser, and a Republican—be a loyal team player? Clancy supplies a testimonial, writing of Zinni’s performance helping Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage run disaster-relief missions: “Zinni made things happen—contributing to, demonstrating his loyalty to, and becoming part of Armitage’s team.”

Still, Foggy Bottom is not likely to be Zinni’s next posting. First, he faces stiff competition for the job from a dozen or so Democratic former statesmen eager to get back in power, who have been serving as Kerry surrogates for months now and expect to be rewarded for their efforts. Second, Zinni may be that rare military officer who understands that the post-Cold War world requires a new vision and new policies, but his career bears little trace of a visionary or a policy-maker. His brilliance lies in implementation. As Clancy puts it, his favorite assignments involve “missions that nobody knows how to define or execute”; his superiors tell him, “Get it done,” and he figures out how to do it. But he’s rarely been the one to define what to get done. Which leads to why Zinni should be seriously considered to run the Pentagon. Gen. Van Riper says that’s the job for him—and that he’s told him so, repeatedly. Judging from his book, Zinni agrees. The only place in Battle Ready where Zinni lays out a detailed proposal for structural change to “fix the system” is in the section about the dysfunctional workings of the Defense Department. It’s an intriguing proposal, involving decentralizing the command structure, giving separate budgets to the CINCs, and replacing the Joint Chiefs of Staff with a body of former service chiefs and CINCs that can view security problems from a broader perspective.

Clearly, Zinni wants to set up this new system—or, short of that, to be one of the retired CINCs on its new advisory board. If Kerry (or, for that matter, a second-term Bush) really wants to overhaul the Pentagon to meet the demands of 21st-century warfare, Zinni is the man.

Zinni also endorses the philosophy of “maneuver warfare” and “military transformation.” But unlike Donald Rumsfeld, who talks about such matters, Zinni has lived them. He wrote the field manuals that incorporated the ideas into Marine doctrine, and he trained the divisions that turned the ideas into actual practice on the battlefield.

It’s unusual, in our tradition of civilian oversight, for a retired military officer to become secretary of defense, but it’s not unprecedented (think Gen. George Marshall). A more serious obstacle might be Zinni’s passionate love for the Marines—certain to throw Army, Air Force, and Navy officers into panic and possible revolt. (Any Army officer would gasp at this footnote on Page 144: “Smart ordnance is making tanks obsolete.”) Still, Zinni did spend the latter part of his career running joint (i.e., fully integrated, multiservice) commands and came to view them as central to military missions today.

A good part of his book reads as if he’s placating the fears of the other services. When he took charge of European Command, he notes, his predecessor urged him to spend more time with Army, Air Force, and Special Operations forces. “And I enjoyed the hell out of it,” he writes. “I just loved it.” At various points in the book, he writes admiringly of the generals and admirals from the Army, Air Force, and Navy with whom he worked. He goes out of his way to note how much fun he had flying in an Air Force F-16 and a Navy A-6.

It’s conceivable that someone may read this book as mere biography, not as an election-year résumé. Here and there, Zinni and Clancy discourage such speculations. Clancy writes, “Zinni doesn’t like Washington—doesn’t like the high concentration or brass and paper pushing.” Zinni himself, in the course of describing his time at U.S. Central Command, says, “My visits to Washington were not so enjoyable. … As ever, the system, bureaucracy, and politics were not for me.”

Yet in one of his many rhapsodies to life in the Marine Corps, Zinni gives away the show: “Forty years as a Marine,” he writes, “taught me that the only place to be is in the center of the arena. … [I]t sure beats sitting in the grandstands criticizing those who have the guts to be out there. And every once in a while, you can make a difference.”

Correction, June 2, 2004: This article originally misspelled Gen. Paul Van Riper’s family name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)