Retired Marine Gen. Anthony C. Zinni outlined some of the mistakes he says the United States made in conducting a pre-emptive war in Iraq, a series of missteps he said has cost America a lot of credibility in the Middle East and other parts of the world.
During a Tuesday afternoon speech at Niagara County Community College, Zinni also explained what he thinks the United States could do to recapture that credibility.
He joined the Marines in 1961 at age 18 and rose through the ranks, including two tours of duty in Vietnam. He also was head of the U.S. Central Command -- in charge of all U.S. forces in a 25-country region, including the Persian Gulf and the Middle East -- before he retired 2000.
Zinni, who later served as special presidential envoy to the Middle East, co-wrote the book "Battle Ready," about his military career, with author Tom Clancy.
Part of America's problem, according to Zinni, is its lack of understanding of Middle East cultures. He said people like to treat that part of the world "as a monolithic, homogeneous place."
"But it's not," he said. "It's a very diverse place." Though mostly Muslim, countries face very different problems -- even with one another -- and have unique cultures, he said.
"It's important not to generalize about other parts of the world," Zinni said, noting that the American media give primarily a U.S. perspective on the region and the Iraq war and that most Americans make little or no effort to understand world events from a foreign standpoint.
Questioned about the Iraq war, Zinni said, "The decision to take on Saddam Hussein was probably not that big an issue in that part of the world."
He said he believed that the United Nations eventually would have allowed intrusion into Iraq if the United States had been more patient and followed diplomatic channels.
"(Saddam) was not a threat, and there were more important things going on in the world at the time, like the war in Afghanistan," Zinni said.
". . . But the process would have taken nine to 12 months. And for better or worse, we elected to go the pre-emptive route. . . . Even that might not have been as bad an issue if it wasn't for the way we conducted it."
Zinni said that the invasion and occupation of Iraq were conducted "with too few troops despite decades of military planning. . . . It included a team that would come in and reconstruct the nation," he said, but those plans were thrown out. He added, "We were not prepared for the insurgency. We should have been, but we were not.
". . . The trouble is, anyone in that part of the world realized that a couple of things were going to happen: There were people who were going to be easily motivated to fight; the criminal element would become active because there was no police and no structure set up to keep order. And then you had the jihadists coming in from all over the world to fight."
For the United States to regain credibility in the region, Zinni said, Iraq's interim government will have to hold democratic elections.
Perhaps most important, he said, is for the Bush administration to mediate a permanent peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.