'It's All a Matter of Perspective': An Interview with General Anthony Zinni, U.S. Marine Corps

Obviously, CinCs [Commanders-in-Chief] are involved in engagement planning and operations with the civilian side of our government—the non-uniformed side.  In the United States, we rely on an interface among the Joint Staff, OSD [the Office of the Secretary of Defense], the State Department, the NSC [National Security Council], and the other agencies.  And when the particular CinC is not directly involved, sometimes it’s difficult to sort through all the policy issues.

Another problem is the way we’re organized.  The State Department is organized to face the world differently from the way the Unified Command Plan operates; the geography is different.  In fact, our geography is even different from OSD’s and the Joint Staff’s.  So you have four different outlooks, and that can be significant.

For instance, in our AOR [area of responsibility], we have Pakistan, but we don’t have India.  We have most of the Arab world, the Middle East, but we don’t have Israel.  The State Department does it differently.  Its Near East Department, for example, includes Israel with the rest of the Middle East, and India and Pakistan are together.  That can change your perspective.  So keeping everything in sync, given these organizational differences, becomes a challenge.  Fortunately, in Central Command we have a good relationship with the State Department.  We don’t always see things eye-to-eye, but we work hard to create a strong relationship with our ambassadors on the ground and the forward desk officers who influence our part of the world—Central Asia, Southwest Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.  But it requires constant attention and constant interaction because of all the complexities and the differences in organization and approach.

Proceedings : Would it help if all the agencies were in sync, territorially?

General Zinni : It could help in some ways.  But we’re talking about political-military interface.  It’s all a matter of perspective.  By looking at it from a purely military dimension, you might end up with a lot of problem areas—having more than one major theater of war in CinC-dom and none in another.

Command-and-control and balance of forces could be at odds with an organization that tries to align itself along national-interest or ethnic/religious-affinity lines.  Military points of view may not match political ones.  And political ones may not match the way things lay out logically—ethnically and culturally—on the ground.  So it is difficult to get it all aligned just right.

Proceedings : The cat-and-mouse game that Iraq has been playing in the no-fly zones seems to be feeding a volatile situation.  You have said that you would need a deliberate campaign and more assets to rectify the situation.  Why don’t we ask for more assets and mount a deliberate campaign to get the job done?

General Zinni : First of all, we have to put in context the threat that these aircraft present to us.  Obviously, anybody who can shoot at you, and has demonstrated the intent to shoot at you, is dangerous.

But in reality, Iraqi aircraft have never fired a missile at us.  In reality, they’ve never shown any indication to do more than assert sovereignty by crossing the line and running back.  In reality, when they have been used in some sort of air defense posture against us, it’s been as the bait, not as the trap or the shooter.  In reality, when we look at the Iraqi Air Force and its levels of pilot training and aircraft capability, it is not a major threat to our aircraft.  Now, does that mean that it isn’t possible for them to shoot down our aircraft?  Of course it’s possible.  Is it probable?  No.

They’ve shown no determination or will to engage.  In fact, they’ve shown just the opposite.  If anything, they don’t want to come out when we’re over Iraqi skies.  They usually show up when we’re on our way out, and they turn and run if we give any indication of turning around to meet them.  They won’t ever put themselves in a position to engage within missile range.  There’s no doubt in my mind that the Iraqi pilots understand the differences between their skills and the skills of our Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force pilots.

So why should we go after their airfields?  We can do damage to airfields, we can blow up a lot of concrete, and we can damage a lot of buildings.  But the probability of eliminating airplanes by doing that is very slim, because Saddam Hussein disperses them to other airfields, and he moves them a lot.  So it would be difficult.

Why don’t we get them with TacAir [tactical aircraft]?  The airfields are located in areas that have what we call Super MEZ [missile engagement zones].  Do we want to mount a campaign to get those airplanes?  The additional assets we would need would have to be Desert Fox-like.  We would have to go against heavy air defenses to get those airplanes.  And we would put pilots at greater risk than they are now.  So what would be the benefit?  Is that really what we want to do?  In addition, what would be the political impact of launching another strike?  Is that the right thing to do?

What do threaten us are surface-to-air missiles, not airplanes.  Their airplanes try to lure us within missile range.  He [Saddam] understands that.  We can take measures to minimize the threat to our airplanes by flying at different altitudes, by not flying in known missile engagement zones, and by placing heavy emphasis on our own intelligence.  If he [Saddam] shows any indication of threatening us, we take action—not necessarily toward the specific system that threatens us.  It’s not just the missiles themselves; it’s also the radars, the early-warning systems, and everything that ties them together.  We reserve the right to strike any part of the Iraqi air defense system if we’re threatened by any other part of it.

That’s what we’ve been doing, systematically, deliberately, and methodically.  We have seen a steady attrition of his air-defense assets.  We see him now pulling back into the center, after he had flooded the north and south.  Obviously, this has been a loser strategy for him.

So to make the simplistic case that going after his airfields will eliminate the threat doesn’t make sense to me.  Anyone can question the strategy.  The only way you can guarantee that Saddam leaves the scene or that the threat goes away is to be willing to put boots on the ground and troops into Baghdad.  When you’re willing to make that commitment, you can make some assurances, but doing anything short of that makes assurances very difficult.

Proceedings : Since Saddam Hussein seems sometimes to have used the no-fly zones to his advantage, how effective are they?

General Zinni : The purpose of the no-fly zones is to prevent him from using fixed-wing aircraft and attack helicopters against his own people—the marsh Arabs, the Shiah in the south, the Kurds in the north.  They were set up in conjunction with the security zone in the north and the no-drive zone in the south, which prevented him from enhancing ground forces to do the same thing.

If the purpose of the no-fly zones was to prevent him from oppressing these people, then they’ve been successful.  We have enforced these no-fly zones for eight years, and we have denied him the use of that space.  I guess if you look at it from the perspective of an eight-year commitment of force, you might reach a different conclusion.  But if you look at it from the perspective of a poor Kurd or a Shiah on the ground, you might say that they’ve been saved a lot of pain and agony.  So how you measure it determines how you answer that question.

Proceedings : The people of the United States supported Desert Storm and its aftermath overwhelmingly.  Now, it seems that many have become jaded and wonder whether recent operations are worth risking American lives and the substantial financial investment.  How do you address the skeptics?

General Zinni :  I would address them in two ways.  First, I would define our national interest there.  This is the repository for most of the energy source that drives the global economy—65% of the known oil reserves and 40 to 45% of the known natural gas reserves.  More is to be tapped just to the north, in the Caucus and Central Asia.  Pipelines may flow from there.  Energy drives our economy, and for the foreseeable future, no alternate sources of fuel are going to drive that economy for at least the next half-century or more.  We import 18% of our oil from this region, and it appears that this number will go up.  Over the course of the next few years, it could increase to as much as 23 to 25%.  So, one-quarter of our direct oil supply could be at risk.

In addition, Japan, the Far East, and Western Europe have a greater reliance on this oil.  Recently, when we had fluctuations in the economies of Asia and other parts of the world, we saw what happened to our economy.  Imagine Japan with no oil—75 to 80% of its oil comes from the Middle East.  The same goes for Western Europe.  What does that do to our economy?

And what happens to the oil we get from regions from Latin America or Africa—which makes up the other 75%—when the demand goes up?  Who says they’ll sell it to us at the current price?  So it isn’t just the 18 to 25% you might lose from the Middle East; you might lose more of what we get now, in greater portions, to competition.

Aside from oil, we all know that instability in this region tends to spread like wildfire.  Extremism, fundamentalism, and terrorism do not stay confined to this region.  And if you don’t contain it, if there is no force of stability, it tends to branch out.

What happens in the Balkans is influenced by what happens in this part of the world.  The Middle East can shoot problems through Africa, which can shoot up into Eastern Europe, up into Central Asia, and out toward Southwest Asia.  These problems tend not to stay confined.  They can even become global and transnational, in terms of drug trade, drug production, and the exporting of terrorism.  This region is the confluence of three continents.  What transits through the Suez Canal, Bab al Mandeb, and the Strait of Hormuz?  It’s the old Silk Route.  Can we afford to lose access to this region?

As for the financial investment, Central Command owns no assigned forces—not one division, not one carrier battle group.  Everything comes to me from somebody else.  In other words, I borrow the forces to police this area.  So we’re not doing this with any extra force structure.  I do it with minimal infrastructure in the AOR, usually from bases provided to us by the countries there.  We do it with pre-positioning supplies and equipment.  Nothing requires constant manning, or permanent bases, or a lot of military construction money.

We do it with burden sharing, which I think is unmatched anywhere in the world.  The Saudis, the Kuwaitis, and others put up hundreds of millions of dollars a year to support our troops with assistance in kind—food, water, fuel, basing rights, overflight rights.  They build facilities for us, as the Saudis have done now, after [the explosion at] Khobar Towers, when we moved to the desert.  They’ve just put $200 million in building facilities for our troops.  So the burden-sharing is significant.

Their military forces have slowly but surely increased in quality.  They don’t have the demographics to match the threats of Iran and Iraq; they just don’t have the numbers of people.  But they have high-quality forces.  They have F-15s, and they have other things that we allow within limits, in terms of technology release.

Who do you think benefits from these billions of dollars of investment in their own defense?  How much of those billions of dollars goes to the U.S. defense industry, so that they can stand with us as partners and provide for their own defense?

Look at what our interests are, what it costs us, and the benefits we get from what our friends in the area do.  We always tap the Saudis and others to provide money for other causes around the world, and they’re always there to do it.

So, is this worth it?  Day-to-day, in non-crisis situations, we have 16,000 to 23,000 troops out in the Gulf, depending on whether a carrier battle group or MEU/ARG [Marine Expeditionary Unit/Amphibious Ready Group] is in or out.  At the height of a crisis, it’s at about 28,000.  So essentially, a division reinforced is taking care of this region of the world.  And not one soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine would go away if Central Command went away today.

Proceedings : The global stake in all this leads to another question.  How well can the United States rely on its European allies?

General Zinni : Obviously, the British fly with us and are committed to us.  And the French fly Southern Watch with us, although right now they’re not—post-Desert Fox.  That may resume.  We have Dutch, Italian, British, and others who send ships to participate in maritime intercept operations with us in the region.  It’s obvious what they did during Desert Storm and the commitment they made.  When we were building up for Desert Thunder [ultimately aborted in 1998], we had commitments from a number of countries.  Some we never called on, because it was halted.  Saddam capitulated.  Some we did deploy—the Australians, New Zealanders, Eastern Europeans, and some Latin Americans.

I think each individual situation has different levels of commitment.  In the region, the support from the GCC [Gulf Council Countries] gets little attention or credit.  The Arab League foreign ministers have condemned Saddam, and his foreign minister burst out red-faced and upset that he couldn’t turn them.  They’ve taken a stand.  They have allowed us to use their bases and strike from them.

We never have had a situation where we couldn’t do what we had to do because somebody denied us access.  Sometimes, we confuse the actual support they give on the ground with what they feel they have to say publicly.  They may say they don’t agree with use of force in this situation, or that they are concerned about the plight of the Iraqi people.  At the same time, they’re letting us use their bases.

Proceedings : What about the French?

General Zinni : First of all, when we went into northern Iraq, the French provided a brigade, and that brigade was chopped to our operational control.  They provided air support.  It was a full-up joint force with its own air and logistics ground forces.  It was very significant and very, very capable.  It was an effective mobile force.

The French stayed with us until 1996, when for political reasons—because they disagreed with our approach to the Kurds—they pulled out.  But from 1991 to 1996, the French and the Brits were the ones who stuck with us.

When we went into Somalia, they provided a brigade—again, French Marines, Legionnaires, the best troops they had, with their own air support and logistics.  And once again, they chopped that whole organization to our operational control.  They took one of the toughest and most remote sectors, and they were with us, side-by-side, in Somalia.

They’re with us in the Balkans today.  They were with us in Desert Storm.  We have conducted noncombatant evacuation operations together out of Africa.  They have evacuated American citizens.  We don’t always see eye-to-eye politically.  But militarily, on the ground, they’ve been fantastic.  They’re one of our most valuable allies, when we can get them.

We sometimes focus on the political difficulties and miss the positive things.  I’m always fond of saying that the main street in the little Pennsylvania town where I grew up was named Lafayette Street.  We ought to think back to what the French did for us during the Revolution, as well as what they did for us in the War of 1812.  And we should remember what we did for them in World Wars I and II.  My father was in World War I and deployed with the American Expeditionary Forces to France.  It’s a long relationship, one that gets strained by politics—but what doesn’t?

Proceedings : Getting back to the current situation in Iraq, in Senate testimony you said that, “We don’t go into pursuit unless there’s a good reason to do that.”  What constitutes a “good reason?”

General Zinni : A good reason would be if they made a deliberate attempt to engage us and we knew we had the assets in theater to pursue.  Another would be if they were truly to violate the no-fly zone and bomb Shiah or marsh Arabs.  And another would be if they were to attack Kuwait or Saudi Arabia.  But nothing like that has happened.

Proceedings : How much more difficult is it to execute a mission like Desert Fox without the larger coalition of Desert Storm?

General Zinni : First of all, we have to keep the Iraqi military capability in perspective.  It’s roughly half of what it was in Desert Storm.  We know a lot more now than we did leading up to Desert Storm.  Obviously, we didn’t know that Iraq was going to invade Kuwait and we were going to be at war.  But now we have nine years of intensive intelligence on this country.  Ever since Desert Storm, because of sanctions, the Iraqi military has atrophied and not modernized at all.  It relies on black-market and self-manufactured parts to keep things going.  They’re pretty innovative, and they do a remarkable job.  But how much of that can keep their forces going?

We also look at the training they receive, the quality of their personnel, and their morale.  We’ve seen executions of officers, mass arrests and releases of officers, and rotations of units to ensure that no loyalty buildup would threaten Saddam.  That takes its toll on a military.  At the same time, the technological capability of our forces has increased since Desert Storm.  The increases on our side and the decreases on their side have allowed us to shape the kind of force we need immediately.  When you add it up, we’re able to do a lot more now with less force than we would have been able to do ten years ago.

Proceedings : I heard at least one senior leader from Desert Storm say that the coalition was more trouble than what it was worth, at least when it came to accommodating and coordinating.  How do you feel about that?

General Zinni : I think what might be considered the coalition, if it really means the regional coalition, has come a long way.  Obviously, Desert Storm has taught a lot about interoperability and communications.  Coalition operations are always harder than solely U.S. operations.  Joint U.S. operations are hard enough.  Combat identification and interoperability of systems make it tough enough to put a joint force on the ground.  Adding coalition forces for combined operations makes it even more complex, brought on by differences in culture and language, incompatibility of equipment, doctrinal incompatibility, and procedural incompatibility.  All those things have to be worked through.

It points up the value of our exercise program.  We do a lot more exercising now with coalition forces in the region than we did before Desert Storm, and these exercises teach us a lot.  We’ve also set up the mechanisms to connect them.

Proceedings : Does U.S. involvement in Bosnia and now Kosovo have any effect on the way you do your job?

General Zinni : It could.  Let me tell you why.  As I told you, we draw forces from other commands.  We own no assigned forces.  If you look at recent events in our AOR, we had only one carrier battle group present.  We’ve had to increase the percentage of time we’ve had Marine Expeditionary Unit or Amphibious Ready Group cover.  And we pulled those out of the Mediterranean.  When we shoot TLAMs [Tomahawk land-attack missiles], the easiest way to keep our minimum numbers up is to pull shooters from the Mediterranean.  So if Kosovo or Bosnia flare up and those forces can’t be spared, then we have a problem.  We are forced to do things that further upset the stability of our force.  We may need to pull forces that are in the process of working up, or pull them out earlier, or extend forces in place.  And that becomes more disruptive of our rotation and readiness and our operational tempo.

So what happens elsewhere in the world, whether it’s in the Pacific, or in the Mediterranean—or anywhere else for that matter—can affect us because we have a force that tends to be globally oriented now—as opposed to regionally oriented—especially in our case.

Proceedings : Are the troops in the Gulf being given awards and combat pay?

General Zinni : Yes.  We do have awards in the region.  Three areas come into play.  One is overall recognition, like the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal for units involved in the operations—and in some cases, in ongoing operations, like Southern Watch and Northern Watch.

Combat zone tax exclusion is received for areas where there is a terrorist threat or a threat in the immediate proximity of units like those in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.  There is also individual imminent danger pay, which is received by our forces who fly.

When we do specific operations like Desert Thunder or Desert Fox, we recognize units with unit awards, too.  We feel the awards program is pretty healthy in the area and we do our best to try to recognize everybody and also to make sure that those who face imminent danger receive the benefits and the pay.

Proceedings : How do you rate the morale of the troops?

General Zinni : Overall, morale has been good.  As a matter of fact, I’m amazed at how high it is.  The things that affect morale most, when you get down to individual units or components, seem to me to be the quality of training and the sophistication of the operation.

For example, an Army battalion task force in Kuwait undergoes unbelievable training.  They prepare elaborate plans.  They can shoot all their weapons; they can maneuver; they have all the assets, even full-time close air support.  Those units really gear up for it.  And they come back much better trained.

Flying missions in Southern Watch tends to get fairly routine.  The pilots are not going through the kinds of more complicated and sophisticated proficiency training that they might at home.  We worry about atrophy of skills.  So we’ve adjusted the tours to accommodate any loss in proficiency or training.  Sometimes the breakdown might seem unfair.  Those who have longer deployments may deploy fewer times.  But in the end, it tends to balance itself out, or pretty close to it.

It has been a long commitment.  I run into troops who have been to the desert 10 and 11 times in their careers.  It gets hard.  We have done a lot of work to improve quality of life out there.  The Saudis have built a friendly forces housing complex to the tune of several hundreds of millions of dollars.  So it is a little more tolerable, and that tends to pick up morale.

At Christmas time, when I went with the Secretary of Defense and a USO show, I was amazed at the spirit of the troops.  And I’m not saying that just because you would expect me to say it.  I’ve been there when they’ve had major complaints.  But I’ve seen a commitment on the part of our commanders to make life better.  The services have begun to adjust.  The Navy and Marine Corps have contended with long deployments for decades and are more used to it.  The Air Force was taking it out of hide.  Now, [Air Force Chief of Staff] General [Michael E.] Ryan has reorganized the Air Force.  He’s looked, by his own account, at how the Navy and Marine Corps have done this.  So he’s creating expeditionary groupings—a workup phase, a ready-for-deployment phase, a recovery phase.  It will be much more like a Marine Expeditionary Unit or a carrier battle group.  We are beginning to see the other services setting up family support structures for continuous deployments.

But the number of deployments take its toll and I’m aware of that.  But I don’t think this is going to change for a while.  I just think the demands of the post-Cold War world are going to make this the routine, and I think it’s important to make adjustments.

I have been surprised when I hear talk about retirement and pay.  I was not aware of how focused even very junior members of the military have become on these issues.  I’m amazed at the young sergeants and the young petty officers, who knew and understood redux versus the 50% and had looked at the long term.  Part of this is because they’re much smarter, they’re much more aware of where they’re going in their lives, and they think beyond tomorrow.  Part of this is because the economy is so good and offers and opportunities are out there.  Another part of this is that we have a much more family-oriented force than we ever had before.  I remember a time in 1989: I was a regimental commander in Okinawa, and General [Al] Gray was the Commandant at the time.  He came out and visited us.  We were on a beach waiting for things to happen during a night amphibious landing.  He said to me, “You know, we crossed a major milestone in the Marine Corps recently.  We now have more dependents than we have Marines.”  And it struck me as something that probably nobody had focused on except somebody like General Gray.  It was a tremendous watershed.

I don’t think that trend has changed.  It has probably continued upward.  When I stood in front of my platoon as Second Lieutenant Zinni in 1965 at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, two men were married out of 40.  When I was Commanding General of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, something like 43% of the force was married.  You’re talking about a force where the average rank is lance corporal.

And when my son stands in front of a platoon, which he may well do when he graduates this summer, he’s going to be looking at a platoon where 18 or 19 Marines are married. 

So when you start looking at platoons that are 50% married, you have young people thinking differently than they did 30 years ago about life, family pressures, the ability to make ends meet, and the continuous deployments.  They think more, I believe, about where they’re headed.

My hat is off to the Service Chiefs, the Chairman, and the Secretary of Defense for changing retirement, increasing pay, and making us more competitive.  Those who want to stay can see where they’re going to be 20 or 30 years from now.  We can make it easier for them to stay.  I think also that all of this will help in terms of readiness.



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