'Battle for Peace' in Iraq Echoes Vietnam Robert Siegel talks with Gen. Tony Zinni, the former head of Central Command. Zinni has been highly critical of the Bush administration's approach to the war and the subsequent occupation in Iraq. Nonetheless, he says, the United States needs to stay in the country because withdrawal could be catastrophic, worse than the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. Zinni is the author of The Battle for Peace: A Frontline Vision of America's Power and Purpose.

'Battle for Peace' in Iraq Echoes Vietnam

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR news. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

Tony Zinni has made no secret that he thinks Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld should be fired for two reasons.

ANTHONY ZINNI: One, is a matter of accountability. The second is in order to move forward with a new face, not find ourselves constantly defending the past, not bringing with us whatever baggage comes with the past decisions that were made and the mistakes that were made, to show it's a fresh start, that their open to new ideas, I think that's necessary. I have nothing personal against Secretary Rumsfeld.

SIEGEL: You're saying it's a distraction, you're saying.

ZINNI: It's a -

SIEGEL: For him to still be Secretary of Defense.

ZINNI: When many people believe, me included, that it's much more serious than that. These were decisions based on negligence. We have to question the competence of decisions, the advice that was taken and available and not taken. So, I think there has to be accountability. But that's my view. I'm not on any campaign or calling for anything. I was asked my opinion and I gave it. That decision belongs to the president.

SIEGEL: But you're talking about the decisions prior to entering the war in Iraq.

ZINNI: And the first decisions in the beginning of it. Disbanding the army, the debathification, the attempt to impose the exiles in leadership positions that were not credible or acceptable, and on and on and on.

SIEGEL: It's not just Donald Rumsfeld who was involved in all that.

ZINNI: No.

SIEGEL: He's not the only person who was in on that.

ZINNI: Of course not. You know, I think many of the people that were are long since gone. I mean, that have been moved. There are others that may still be there.

SIEGEL: To put it mildly, that has not been the rule in Iraq. Mistakes were made, it is said, and Secretary of State Rice just said it the other day. But there does seem to be people getting fired for having made those mistakes.

ZINNI: I think she said something to the effect that history will judge that the strategic decisions were right. Well, you know, I seriously question that in terms of the planning. And it seems to be denial when you don't admit to mistakes made at the level here in this town, in Washington.

SIEGEL: Right now, I don't hear you joining the, let's say we'll be out within a year, or set a deadline to our presence in Iraq camp. You're saying, we have to stay there.

ZINNI: Right.

SIEGEL: What ultimately is the difference between the argument today that if we pull out of Iraq rapidly there could be terrible consequences for the region and the arguments that were made, say, in 1968, that there would be consequences which were pretty close to what we, in fact, saw in five years and 20,000 American lives later in 1973 when we finally got out?

ZINNI: Well, I think there's one big difference. I think by the time we drew toward the end of our involvement in Vietnam, we began to realize dominos wouldn't fall. And I think there may have been a realization that if we leave, you know, obviously there are immediately downsides to that, but in the long- term, it isn't going to affect our survival. It isn't going to affect our security interest. It isn't going to change us much in the end, except for all, obviously, the psychological and other reasons for our commitment over the long-term (inaudible).

SIEGEL: Although, one could say that we knew that as well in 1968 as we knew it by the end. And then, and we spent five years not wanting to leave precipitous. I mean, I understand, generals don't like to leave wars precipitously.

ZINNI: Absolutely. And neither do sergeants, you know.

SIEGEL: It goes against the grain of people in uniform.

ZINNI: That's right.

SIEGEL: You're confident that we're not making that mistake right now in thinking that we can get things done because we'd like to see them get done there.

ZINNI: But I would say something else, it's very important to say since I've been a critic of all this, this is not lost yet. This is certainly salvageable, more than salvageable.

SIEGEL: Why is Iraq of greater strategic consequence to us than, say, Vietnam in the 1960s and '70s?

ZINNI: If you just look at your geography, it sits astride all the major trade routes and routes of communication, air, sea, and land that go through it. You know, so there's all sorts of economic, political, and security considerations that make it much more dangerous.

SIEGEL: You urge us around the world in our policies to help foster developments in countries that counter destabilization.

ZINNI: Right

SIEGEL: It's a measured statement of what we should be helping countries to do. The president has very unmeasured statements, we should be bringing democracy to the world. Is his aim exaggerated and is it going to get us into trouble? Should we be in favor of a stable Iraq that we might not recognize as a democratic one?

ZINNI: You can't just fairy dust democracy and see that as a solution to everything. Worse yet, you can't say democracy equals elections or elections equal democracy. It's not that simple.

SIEGEL: Right. But you're getting more ambitious as you spell out what has to be done in these countries. You're talking about things that will unfold over decades, I assume.

ZINNI: We need to pool our resources and take an international approach to this. And as the sole remaining super power, the leadership role of this falls to us. This is not out of altruism. This is not becoming the world's policeman. This is out of necessity right now.

SIEGEL: One last short answer question. If nominated, would you run and if elected, would you serve?

ZINNI: No and no.

SIEGEL: Thank you very much, General Anthony Zinni.

ZINNI: Thank you.

SIEGEL: General Zinni, former head of U.S. Central Command. His latest book is The Battle for Peace: A Frontline Vision of America's Power and Purpose. And there's an excerpt of it at our website, npr.org.

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