Retired Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni, speaking at a luncheon yesterday in Raleigh, discussed the problems he sees in the Iraq War and how the United States should proceed.

He attributed the main problems to U.S. inability to cope with “non-state actors” who are not constrained by the obligations that nation-states must adhere to. Such free-wheelers, he said, are Hamas, Hezbollah, al Qaeda, international drug cartels, and warlord groups.

“They don’t have a capital or an organized military force,” Zinni said, speaking at a John Locke Foundation Headliner Luncheon at the Brownstone Hotel. “These non-state actors have been our biggest problems.” The rise of such groups led to the problems in unstable parts of the world to “wash up on our shores,” the retired Marine said.

The problem in Iraq has been the flawed structure established by the United States to reconstruct the country, Zinni said. The U.S. effort, he said, is poorly organized, inhibiting the ability to implement ideas.

As before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Zinni said, government agencies don’t communicate with each other and instead of “building them for the 21st Century,” we ended up with an even more bloated bureaucracy. For example, he said the Department of Homeland Security operates much the same way that the rest of government does, with earmarks, cronyism, and failure to reward competency.

Zinni did not say specifically what he thinks President Bush should do in Iraq, but said that whatever Bush decides to do, he needs the competent structure and plan in place to carry it out. Having the Department of Defense run the economic reconstruction, and shutting down factories because they were state-owned under Saddam Hussein’s regime, were examples of poorly thought-out decisions, Zinni said.

He also said the nature of the enemy in Iraq cannot be identified as a single, monolithic force. “I defy anybody here to tell me who the enemy is,” Zinni said, adding that each opposition group requires a different approach. To carry out a successful Iraq reconstruction, he said, would require five to seven more years and in the short term, more troops.

In fact, part of the original miscalculation was the insufficient number of troops used to try and stabilize Iraq, Zinni said. He said shortly after the end of the Cold War the military became enamored with technology, reducing the overall military personnel.

“A few of us objected to this,” he said. He said a study group he was a part of recommended up to 400,000 troops for Iraq, because the problem wasn’t taking out Saddam, but in stabilizing the region. “These situations are manpower-intensive,” he said.

As for the structure that Bush had to work with in government, Zinni gave him the benefit of some doubt.

“I can’t blame this administration for what it inherited. It inherited a bloated bureaucracy,” he said, noting that the practice of earmarking, K Street lobbyists’ influence, and pork-barrel politics were “centuries in the making.”

But the president’s key mistake, Zinni said, was in failing to tell the American people honestly why an invasion of Iraq was necessary. He said the information he saw showed that Hussein had no active program in 2002 and 2003 for weapons of mass destruction. Saddam had the ability to reconstitute such a program fairly quickly, he said, but U.N. sanctions were successfully containing him.

Zinni called the WMD justification “an exaggeration that was going to burn [the Bush administration] in the end.” Besides the insufficient troops, prosecuting the war on the cheap, Zinni said the administration “doomed themselves by the rationale for the war,” likening the WMD rationale to the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that granted President Lyndon Johnson permission to escalate involvement in Vietnam.

Paul Chesser ([email protected]) is associate editor of Carolina Journal.