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General Anthony Zinni (usmc, retired), former centcom commander

| Thu Oct. 18, 2007 2:00 AM EDT

MJ: What's our moral obligation to the people of Iraq?

AZ: We owe the Iraqis because we've been letting them down ever since the first Gulf War. We sort of implied that if they stood up to Saddam we'd help them. We intervened and as soon as we found no WMDs, we switched it to bringing Democracy and freeing the Iraqi people, improving quality of life. And of course now we'll cut and run and let them suffer through all that.

The difference between how others view us and how we view ourselves is we compartmentalize things. Well, it's okay to say, "Screw it; we're outta here, because that was a Bush decision and I decide to vote against him now. I'm clear of this." Your conscience is not clean just because you're a peace demonstrator. The government is us and the moral obligation is with us as a society. The administration proposed the war; Congress authorized it; we are responsible for it. We can wash our conscience clean with a new election, but there has to be some sort of obligation that falls to us as a society for what our government does in our name.

MJ: What's your take on how General Petraeus has been doing?

AZ: I wish Dave Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the finest team we could put out there, would have been out there in the beginning. They have an appreciation for the culture. They have an appreciation for the conflict and the nature of it, what works and doesn't work. They don't get caught up in doctrine or ideology. They're very practical in their approaches. But they've been dealt a lousy hand that they have to play out. So whether they can salvage it or not will be problematic, because they have to start from so far behind.

We are doing things that practically are losers. If you've ever had experience teaching tactics, you can watch and see war games, you can see how military commanders get sort of sucked into marginal success that in the long run will be failures. Where you're killing the enemy, you're draining the enemy, but you're paying a hell of a price for it. And if you project it out into the long run you see that this is a Pyrrhic victory at best, but you're being sucked in because you are moving forward in some ways. And you lose sight, you become myopic in looking at this, you lose sight that this is a loser tactic and you need to do it with a new approach. I heard that some of the neocons were saying that if we were willing to suffer these kinds of casualty rates for about 10 years we could prevail. Well, give me a break. That just is not sustainable. And it's not victory in the end.

We're fighting tactically. We interpret victory by body count, by how many cells you break down, how much leadership you kill. Meanwhile, the Osama bin Ladens of the world have this endless flow of angry young men pouring into Iraq, willing to blow themselves up. You're going to make no strategic difference, and you're back to the Vietnam mentality that maybe you can win this war from the bottom up if you can kill enough of them.

MJ: Maliki's government has been criticized. Is there something more we should be doing?

AZ: We are beyond our ability to influence that. We ran to these elections, and that's not the way you build a democracy. Civics 101 tells you the election is the end state, the end result; many things come before that: structuring the government in a way the people understand, educating the electorate, creating political parties that are viable and have a platform and are understandable. But we went to the elections first, so we created this mess—and you have a government there that is not responsive to the people.

MJ: Is there concern that if the plug is pulled contractors will be made vulnerable?

AZ: This is a high-risk business from that aspect. Contrary to popular belief, this is not a high-margin business. But it's a dangerous business. We've had a lot of employees killed, Americans as well as third-party nationals. If we withdraw, you're going to see the contractors have to withdraw because of the security situation. Unless the contracts are done through the locals or something like that. Sometimes the locals have their own security and are able to handle it.

MJ: Do you have contingency plans for pulling your people quickly?

AZ: Yeah, we do. We monitor it very closely and if it gets to the point, let's say we have people housed in an area that has U.S. security in the region so we're under that U.S. security umbrella. If suddenly that U.S. security is departing or leaving we make an assessment of what security there is, and if it is anywhere near unclear we're going to pull our people and we've done that.

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