Should America act as the world’s police? Are we even capable of doing so? Few Americans are better qualified to answer these urgent questions than retired four-star general Tony Zinni.
In his new book, Before the First Shots Are Fired, Zinni considers these questions through the prism of his vast military experience, which ranges from Vietnam to Somalia to the halls of power in Washington, D.C.
In the except below, Zinni recalls the buildup to the ill-fated 2003 invasion of Iraq — and how it exemplified the flaws in the federal government and the military.
You can purchase the full book here.
The neocons—extreme hawks when it comes to intervention in the Middle East—had been pressing for war with Iraq for a long time. During the Clinton presidency, they had urged the president toward a military confrontation with that country, but Clinton wisely stayed on the course of containment that his predecessor George H. W. Bush had set. I sincerely hoped that the George W. Bush administration would not change that course. The administration was filled with serious and experienced people like Secretary of State Colin Powell, who knew better than to embark on a war with Iraq while we were in the opening stages of a potentially long conflict with extremists in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa. That had to be our military priority. The Saddam Hussein regime was fully contained. They were only a threat within their own country, and only to a few of their own people, such as political enemies of Saddam.
Evidence for this judgment came from intelligence I’d received during my last years as commander of CENTCOM and later. After I retired from the Marine Corps, I was asked to participate in high-level intelligence studies of Iraq’s WMD potential. Both sources—containing all the intelligence available at that time—convinced me and everyone else involved in the studies that no clear evidence existed for an ongoing WMD program in Iraq. The work of the UN inspectors had prevented an effective, ongoing program from being restarted and their accounting for past capabilities indicated that the possibility of hidden capabilities was highly unlikely. WMD should not have been our chief worry about that country. We should have been more worried about internal collapse of Saddam’s regime, the ensuing chaos, and the likelihood that we would be drawn into it.
And then in Nashville I listened, astonished, to Vice President Cheney’s absolute statements: “ . . . no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction . . . no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us.”
When it was clear that the Bush administration was set on invading Iraq, shock turned into anger, and I made my concerns known.
Shortly before the invasion, I spent a day with a number of senior retired officials at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, to receive a briefing about Iraq WMD capabilities. We were there as consultants on Iraq’s potential WMD responses to the invasion. After the briefing, I threw a fit. “I can’t believe we are going to war based on this garbage,” I told the group. “Please tell me that you have better intelligence locked in some compartmented program I’m not read into.”
The briefer gave no response. And some of the group seemed disturbed that I challenged the intelligence justification for invasion. They shuffled their papers or stared in annoyance at their laps. I turned then to a respected retired senior intelligence official who was working with us. “Am I crazy,” I asked, “or is there no clear evidence of a WMD program in Iraq?”
“General, you’re not crazy,” he told me.
Yet, on March 20, 2003, we launched an invasion.
Before the invasion, after tense diplomatic wrangling, Secretary of State Colin Powell had gotten unanimous agreement on a United Nations Security Council resolution that sent weapons inspectors back into Iraq (they had been removed some months earlier). It was clear that Hans Blix, head of the UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission, and Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, were, once again, aggressively inspecting and investigating inside Iraq. Many on their inspection teams were respected Americans. Though the Security Council resolution did not authorize the use of force, it was clear that the Bush administration wanted a war. It was also clear that they would not be able to obtain the sanction of a UN Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force, such as the first President Bush achieved prior to the first Gulf War, unless there was absolute proof of a WMD program. The inspectors found no evidence of an ongoing WMD program and reported their findings back to the UN. Since, as a result, there could be no UN Security Council approved military coalition authorized to use force, a “coalition of the willing,” as President George W. Bush put it, would have to do—a coalition made up of those nations we could persuade, incentivize, or browbeat into joining our cause. Secretary Rumsfeld, in addressing the findings of the inspectors, indicated that we should go ahead and invade anyway since our troops were already deployed in the region and shouldn’t spend the hot summer there in the desert!
They would spend ten summers sweltering and bleeding in Iraq.
The neocons, well ensconced in the Defense Department and the White House, were leading the onrush toward war. Their spokesmen were bragging that the conflict would be a “cakewalk” and that we would be greeted as liberators, with flowers in the streets—calling up images of Paris in August 1944. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, a leading neocon, assured a congressional panel that the war would come with no cost. Revenues from Iraq’s oil would foot the bill.
I knew these arrogant predictions were wrong. They drew my memory back to Vietnam, when the Gulf of Tonkin incident of 1964, a phony casus belli, was trumped up to launch us into war and gain the support of Congress and the American people . . . soon followed by Defense Secretary McNamara’s confident assurances in 1966 that the war would be over by Christmas.
I was getting calls from senior CENTCOM officers charged with planning the operation. “We can’t believe what we’ve been told to do.” they were telling me. “Our instructions are to treat the mission as an easy liberation rather than the difficult, dangerous, and risky occupation that years of planning and intelligence had taught us to expect.” And they continued: “Secretary Rumsfeld has pressured your successor (at CENTCOM) into changing the war plan requirement for four hundred thousand troops to one hundred and sixty thousand.” A clear disaster in my mind. Taking out the regime could be accomplished easily, but the aftermath of internal chaos and the potential for malign elements to enter Iraq would be catastrophic if we did not have from the beginning the overwhelming force needed to control the population and borders. Rumsfeld did not under- stand what he was in for. The stupidity of believing their own bumper stickers, that “Shock and Awe” would cause all opposition to cower in fear and melt away, had firmly taken hold in Washington. They did not understand the mire they were stepping into. “We are forbidden to even use the ‘O’ word”—occupation—a superb planning officer, an expert on the region and especially Iraq, told me in frustration and despair. “Can you believe these guys, Sir?” No. I could not.
Why did we choose to go to war in Iraq? Some speculated that President Bush sought revenge for the Iraqi regime’s April 1993 attempt to assassinate his father during a visit to Kuwait. Others saw the invasion as a strategic move to implant democracy in the heart of the Middle East— a change they expected would counter extremist movements and spread throughout the region. Others blamed pressure from Israel. . . . Hardly possible, based on my own recent daily personal contacts with Israeli political and military leadership. They had no appetite for a war then. Just the opposite, as they had warned Cheney. Besides, given Israel’s superb intelligence capabilities in the region and their past record of preemptively taking out Iraqi and Syrian WMD capabilities in previous attacks, why wouldn’t they have removed any existing WMD program elements on their own or raised the alarm to us?
Did any of these explanations justify our invasion and long occupation of Iraq? I doubted it. Why was it so easy to respond with military force and shortchange all other options? The inspectors were back in, we controlled the skies, and we had regional support for our ongoing containment operations. Logic should have led us to continue the containment, deal with Al Qaeda and Afghanistan, and then evaluate a course of action regarding Iraq.
Our own history should teach us that it’s way too easy to get into a war. There are plenty of injustices in this world that need fixing and plenty of potential and real threats looming over us that it would be desirable to remove. Add to that our possession of the most powerful military on the planet and the strong temptations and pressures to use it, and you can see why pulling the trigger appears so inviting. There have been presidents, members of Congress, and generals who never met an intervention they didn’t like. The hard lessons from past wars and interventions go un- heeded, and time tends to erase any reluctance to do it again. The “Vietnam syndrome,” the “Somalia syndrome,” or the “Iraq syndrome” have a short shelf life.
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