I don’t mean to suggest that Anthony Zinni, the highly decorated retired Marine general and one-time CENTCOM commander, was airing a personal grudge when he went on Face the Nation on Sunday and urged the Obama administration to quit dawdling and to heed General Stanley McChrystal’s request for new American troops in Afghanistan.
After all, Zinni has a well-earned reputation for offering candid and forthright foreign policy analysis. This is the man who became something of a folk hero to the left when he bluntly criticized the motives for and the execution of the Iraq war in its earliest days—only to frustrate those admirers by backing George W. Bush’s troop surge in 2007. He is not one to play politics with war.
What can be said, though, is that by airing his thoughts on Afghanistan on national television, Zinni was also able to stick it to a White House that jilted him in rather humiliating fashion eight months ago.
The Zinni-Obama saga began just before the president’s inauguration when General Jim Jones, who was to become Obama’s national security adviser, asked Zinni if he’d be willing to serve as ambassador to Iraq.
In theory, this would have been a political home run for the new White House—an impeccably credentialed military man who had supported Bush in the 2000 election, only to grow alarmed at his foreign policy adventurism, and a seemingly perfect symbol of the kind of change Obama had in mind. (There had even been some talk in the summer of 2008 about Obama offering Zinni the No. 2 slot on his ticket, but this never gained any momentum.)
In late January, Zinni met with Hillary Clinton and other State Department officials and was then formally offered the job by Jones. He accepted, and Vice President Joe Biden even called to welcome Zinni to the administration.
But then, for reasons which still remain murky, the White House reversed itself, and in early February—after ignoring him for two weeks following the offer of the ambassadorship—Zinni finally received a terse call from Jones, informing him that Chris Hill would actually fill the Iraq post. No explanation was offered, publicly or privately, and an understandably irked Zinni responded by going to the press.
“You know, I would have appreciated if someone called me and said, ‘Minds were changed,’” he said in one interview. “But not even to get a call. That's what's really embarrassing.”
Several theories have been advanced about what really went down. One has it that Richard Holbrooke, tasked with advising Obama on Afghanistan and Pakistan, decided to throw his weight around and convinced the administration to jilt Zinni in favor of Hill, Holbrooke’s protégé.
Others suggest that Zinni’s post-military gig as an executive with DynCorp, a defense contractor, did him in. And some maintain that pro-Israel groups, which have long deemed Zinni insufficiently supportive of Jerusalem, pressured Clinton and the White House to walk back their commitment to Zinni—sort of like what happened a month later, when Chas Freeman abruptly withdrew as Obama’s choice to lead the National Intelligence Council.
Whatever the White House’s motives, its execution was sloppy and an opportunity to score political points instead turned into a very public display of amateurism. It also left Zinni fuming—and ensured that, as a private citizen whose views are very much in demand by the media, he wouldn’t be giving this White House the benefit of the doubt on much.
Which brings us to Sunday’s Face the Nation. In the show’s first segment, Bob Schieffer welcomed General Jones—the man who originally sought Zinni out and offered him the Iraq post—and Jones spent about 15 minutes trying, as best he could, to play down the significance of McChrystal’s new troop request and dismiss talk that Obama’s current policy reassessment represents “dithering” that is negatively affecting American standing in Afghanistan and the region.
Then, after a commercial break, it was Zinni’s turn. (No word on whether the two men crossed paths while coming and going from the set.) And he was in no mood the cut the White House any slack.
I think we have to be careful how long this goes on,” he warned, echoing a favorite theme of Obama’s critics on the right. “It could be seen not only out there in the region by our allies [but even by] the enemy as being indecisive—unable to make a decision.”
He also endorsed McChrystal’s troop request, contending that “General McChrystal has made an honest and thorough assessment as—as to what you need. It begins with security. You can't do all the other things without it.”
Zinni didn’t get to say much more—he shared the segment with Senator Carl Levin and Representative Ike Skelton. But what he did say wasn’t at all helpful to the White House, which hardly seems enthusiastic about McChrystal’s request, but badly needs cover from military types like Zinni. And as the Afghanistan debate heats up (it was the main topic on all of the Sunday shows this week), his voice figures to grow louder.
There were probably more than a few folks in the White House on Sunday wishing that Zinni were currently an ambassador in Baghdad instead of a private citizen in Washington.