General Zinni is a former Commander-in-Chief of United States Central Command (CENTCOM), and was President George W. Bush's special envoy to the Middle East in 2002. He has been interviewed in the Middle East Quarterly, and he co-authored the book Battle Ready (Berkley Trade, 2005).
During the Cold War, there was an order and understanding which made each side more secure and more comfortable. Despite the looming threat of nuclear war between the world's two superpowers, there were numerous controls and checks in place, such as the hotlines between Moscow and Washington. Everyone knew of and understood the strategic principles that underpinned all of our actions. The sophistication of our understanding of the Soviet mindset allowed for more fluid development of policy and the Soviet understanding of our mindset maintained order within the chaos of the Cold War.
After the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was a persistent belief that everything would be fine and that the world's issues would resolve themselves. The world was changing and reordering itself. Despite the optimism about peace, the United States found itself dealing with one crisis or another on a daily basis. Conflicts existed in the Balkans, Africa, and other parts of the world. This reordering of the world was different from the other two that occurred in the 20th century because it did not occur after a world war; this meant that one could not see it coming, and it was hard to get a sense and context for the orders that were unraveling.
The perception that after the Cold War all would be quiet on the diplomatic and military fronts was false. All over the world, religious fanaticism and ethnic violence were rampant, creating crises in Somalia, Bosnia, Northern Iraq, and other parts of the Balkans and Africa. Unlike during the Cold War, there was nobody to "buy off" these emerging countries and their problems. The Cold War was a zero-sum game. Countries were courted by one side or the other, creating stability and providing a balance. The massive amounts of aid and support from either side then ensured that order would be maintained.
After the Cold War there emerged the rise of other external forces which added to the confusion and accelerated the change. Globalization and multinational corporations made identifying interests more difficult, and the proliferation of international NGOs fueled humanitarian work, the reconstruction of governments, and social activism movements. Strange people also began to appear on the battlefield, soldiers who could not be identified by their sovereign association or national identity.
These fighters were associated with the rise of non-state actors who were in many cases becoming more powerful than the nation-states in which the U.S. was involved. These non-state actors had names like warlords, drug cartels, and extremist networks. They often drew upon greater resources than the nation-states they challenged.
In addition to the rise of non-state actors, all over the world there were mass diasporas and migrations. People were picking up and leaving their homes in search of a better life elsewhere; entire communities and mini-cultures were moving. This created a number of identity crises and assimilation problems. There was also tremendous environmental damage, global health problems, and international crime often associated with drugs. With the increased mobility there was a much more rapid spread of problems and pandemics, such as AIDS and the Avian Flu. People's survival became dependent on growing poppies and coca leaves, which later showed up on US streets in the forms of heroin and crack cocaine.
Unlike after the World Wars, there was no major restructuring of American policy, no plan from a Wilson or Truman or Marshall. Those men understood that the world was changing and that they needed to direct and influence the change. They also realized that there were forces at play which, if left unchecked, had the potential to repeat the catastrophes that had just concluded. While the Marshall Plan was only initially supported by 19% of Americans, Marshall's 84 speeches served to convince the people that it was ultimately necessary. Truman also decided to restructure our military and government with the 1947 National Security Act. All of these changes were extremely beneficial both at home and abroad and reflected an evolving understanding of the world.
We do not understand the world that is emerging today. The rise of the information age, coupled with all of the emerging dilemmas, has enabled a guy in a cave, using cell phones and the internet, to run a global terrorist network that is threatening the security of the most sophisticated military power in the world. It is doubtful that we ever imagined that the effects of nuclear power could be contained in a suitcase, yet this is the reality with which we are faced.
The U.S. government does not have a strategic vision that takes into account this new world and develops the kind of strategy that carried us through the Cold War, in which we had visionaries and strategists who could create the approaches we needed to deter our adversaries and confront the challenges we faced. We do not understand this new world order and we cannot make progress until we do. There are new threats, and we can no longer assume that the threats are sovereign nations, alliances, or political ideologies. What threatens us now is the confused instability that exists all over the world.
These issues do not lend themselves to purely defensive answers; there needs to be change in other parts of the world. Worse than our lack of understanding, is the fact that we have an archaic structure of government. No military or business would ever organize itself like the U.S. government. It is a government of bloated bureaucracy that is not integrated and does not cross-communicate. The new world moves so fast, the exchange of information is so rapid, and the threats are so diverse that we need streamlined organizations that can react quickly. They need to be adaptable in order to be successful.
The "War on Terror" declares war on a tactic. This is akin to FDR declaring war on Kamikazes. We have not defined the enemy, and as long as we define it as a tactic, we will only deal with it on a tactical level. We need to identify and affect the center of gravity in the region and in Al-Qaeda in order to influence change. The center of gravity for Al-Qaeda rests on two things: an endless flow of angry young men willing to blow themselves up, and an aberrant form of Islam that can be preached unchallenged.
Is there a better way for us to confront these threats? Is there instability in the world that has to be dealt with in a saner way? Are there times when we could invest in creating more stable environments earlier, when intervention is not so expensive or impossible? We tend to wait until the situation is at its worst before we take action. We also do not blend our diplomatic clout, economic power, and military strength very well.
We have not done a good job at creating international partnerships and working with NGOs, which has hindered our efforts in Iraq. The reconstruction was always acknowledged as the most difficult and delicate element of the war in Iraq. Still, Iraq is not a lost cause and we cannot let it fail. The real problem, however, is in Iran. The concern over intervention in Iran is that we will act militarily and think only of the first level of actions, not their repercussions. It is important not to delude ourselves into believing that we can get a little bit pregnant here. There are all kinds of Iranian reactions to prepare for, including but not limited to an attack on Israel, attacks on military positions in the Gulf, attacks on oil and gas resources in the region, mining the Strait of Hormuz, launching of missiles, and calls for a Jihad. We would have to be prepared to go to Tehran, which would not be an easy task.
Success in deterring Iran from developing nuclear capabilities rests largely in the hands of the Russians and the Chinese. If the international community were to hold fast, threaten sanctions, and declare Iran a rogue state, it would strike at the very essence of the Persians' conception of themselves. That kind of isolation from the international community would turn them around.
We have to stop treating our regional concerns as separate entities; we need a larger strategy that appreciates the complexities of every situation. The U.S. failure so far in Iraq is due largely to one simple reason: we did not see the necessity for an occupation. We need to do what we did in Japan and Germany. We need an occupation in order to physically and psychologically control and direct affairs.