Did retired General Anthony Zinni really call George W. Bush’s war in Iraq a “brain fart”? That seems to be the case. But first, some background.
On Thursday night, Zinni, the former commander of the U.S. Central Command, was interviewed by Ted Koppel on Nightline. And he was rather sharp in his assessment of George W. Bush’s policy in Iraq. Before the war, Zinni, who had been an envoy for Bush in the Middle East, opposed a U.S. invasion of Iraq, arguing that Saddam Hussein did not pose an imminent threat. On Nightline, Zinni compared Bush’s push for the war with the Gulf of Tonkin incident–an infamous episode in which President Lyndon Johnson misrepresented an attack on two U.S. Navy destroyers in order to win congressional approval of the war in Vietnam–and he challenged “the credibility behind” Bush’s prewar assertions concerning Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction and its association with anti-American terrorists. “I’m suggesting,” Zinni said, “that either the [prewar] intelligence was so bad and flawed–and if that’s the case, then somebody’s head ought to roll for that–or the intelligence was exaggerated or twisted in a way to make a more convenient case to the American people.” Zinni said he believed that Hussein had maintained “the framework for a weapons of mass destruction program that could be quickly activated once sanctions were lifted” and that such a program, while worrisome, did not immediately endanger the United States.
Zinni raised the issue that Bush might have purposefully misled the public and not shared with it the true reason for the war: “If there’s a strategic decision for taking down Iraq, if it’s the so-called neoconservative idea that taking apart Iraq and creating a model democracy, or whatever it is, will change the equation in the Middle East, then make the [public] case based on that strategic decision….I think it’s a flawed–like the domino theory–it’s a flawed strategic thought or concept….But if that’s the reason for going in, that’s the case the American people ought to hear. They ought to make their judgment and determine their support based on what the motivation is for the attack.”
Zinni was, in a way, being polite. Earlier in the month, he addressed a forum sponsored by the U.S. Naval Institute and the Marine Corps Association. There he let loose. Reflecting the views of high-ranking U.S. military officials who were dubious about launching a war against Iraq and skeptical about the occupation that would follow, Zinni accused the Bush crowd of having not been ready for the challenges to come after defeating the Iraqi army. “We’re in danger of failing,” he noted, because the Bush administration had not readied itself for what would follow the initial military engagement. “We fought one idiot here [in Iraq], just now,” he said. “Ohio State beat Slippery Rock 62 to 0. No shit! You know! But we weren’t ready for that team that came onto the field at the end of that three-week victory.” He went on:
“Right now, in a place like Iraq, you’re dealing with Jihadists that are coming in to raise hell, crime on the streets that’s rampant, ex-Ba’athists that still running around, and the potential now for this country to fragment: Shi’ia on Shi’ia, Shi’ia on Sunni, Kurd on Turkomen. It’s a powder keg. I just got back from Jordan. I talked to a number of Iraqis there. And what I hear scares me even more that what I read in the newspaper. Resources are needed, a strategy is needed, a plan. This is a different kind of conflict. War fighting is one element of it.”
Zinni displayed little confidence in Bush and his aides. He said that their Iraq endeavor has landed the United States into the middle of assorted “culture wars” in the Middle East. “We don’t understand that culture,” he remarked. “I’ve spent the last 15 years of my life in this part of the world. And I’ll tell you, every time I hear…one of the dilettantes back here speak about this region of the world, they don’t have a clue. They don’t understand what makes them tick. They don’t understand where they are in their own history. They don’t understand what our role is….We are great at dealing with the tactical problems–the killing and the breaking. We are lousy at solving the strategic problems; having a strategic plan, understanding about regional and global security and what it takes to weld that and to shape it and to move forward.”
Do you think Zinni is angry over the war? He did get worked up as he ended his speech:
“We should be…extremely proud of what our people did out there….It kills me when I hear of the continuing casualties and the sacrifice that’s being made. It also kills me when I hear someone say that, well, each one of those is a personal tragedy, but in the overall scheme of things, they’re insignificant statistically.” (Perhaps he had in mind the comment Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made in June, when he played down attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq by saying, “You’ve got to remember that if Washington, D.C., were the size of Baghdad, we would be having something like 215 murders a month; there’s going to be violence in a big city.”) Zinni continued: “When we put [our enlisted men and women] in harm’s way, it had better count for something, It can’t be because some policy wonk back here has a brain fart of an idea of a strategy that isn’t thought out.”
Brain fart? That’s not quite a military term. But those are fighting words. And Zinni practically counseled his audience to rebel against the Bush administration. U.S. troops, he said, “should never be put on a battlefield without a strategic plan, not only for the fighting–our generals will take care of that–but for the aftermath and winning that war. Where are we, the American people, if we accept this, if we accept this level of sacrifice without that level of planning? Almost everyone in this room, of my contemporaries–our feelings and our sensitivities were forged on the battlefields of Vietnam, where we heard the garbage and lies, and we saw the sacrifice. We swore never again would we do that. We swore never again would we allow it to happen. And I ask you, is it happening again? And you’re going to have to answer that question, just like the American people are.”
Brain fart. Garbage and lies. Never again. This was harsher rhetoric than Zinni deployed on Nightline, though his message was essentially the same. With such talk, he is in sync with Senator Ted Kennedy, who was blasted by Republicans for calling the war a “fraud.” Note to Kennedy and other critics of the war: Fire away. If a Republican counter-attacks, you can always reply, at least I didn’t say Bush is asking Americans to give their lives for a war based on mental flatulence.
COMING SOON: David Corn’s new book, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers, due out September 30). For more information and a sample, check out the book’s official website: www.bushlies.com.