Off the Cuff: Anthony C. Zinni, Retired Four-Star General, Author

General Anthony C. Zinni is a retired four-star general in the United States Marine Corps and a former Commander-in-Chief of U.S. Central Command. In addition to being chair of the board for BAE Systems, a military contracting firm, Zinni has also authored three books and held numerous positions at academic institutions. He is also the first four-star general to speak at Oberlin. Prior to his lecture for the 2010–11 Convocation series, Zinni spoke with the Review about nuclear proliferation, the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and current threats to the United States.

Ian Seeley, Managing Editor

What is the greatest military threat to the United States today and how should the U.S. address this threat?

Well, I think there may be a couple. I would still say, despite the end of the Cold War and the belief that maybe we were reversing weapons of mass destruction, I still think proliferation is probably the most significant threat and poses an existential threat. In addition to that, obviously extremism, the terrorist attacks we have suffered, although I think that that’s beginning to wane. … I’m increasingly worried about instability in parts of the world that would draw us in; we can see what’s going on in the Middle East now. But even south of our border, states that are under pressure, for whatever reason. It might be organized crime, it might be through natural disasters, but I think we have a lot of societies under stress. … Failing societies could create all sorts of issues in terms of becoming sanctuaries, creating diasporas or migrations that would impact others, and creating humanitarian disasters that would be a problem. I think right now those are the three I would worry most about.

In your opinion, in what capacity should the United States use its military to deal with the spread of nuclear weapons?

I think first of all we should work with the international community — it shouldn’t be just the U.N., the [International Atomic Energy Agency] and other organizations that are responsible. It is important to bring international pressure to try and reduce weapons of mass destruction — in cases of super power nuclear weapons — to eliminate them, to provide incentives for eliminating them, maybe disincentives for possessing them. So I think we talk about our military, I would much rather see us develop international cooperation, international agreements [and] international agencies. If necessary, where military has to become involved, if it’s done on an international basis, maybe under U.N. resolution or some cooperative coalition, I would hope we wouldn’t get into unilateral action unless the threat was so great that it offered no other possibilities.

Do you think the U.S. military should get involved in the current situation in Libya and, if so, to what extent?

I do not think we should get involved in no-fly zones or military strikes or taking military actions for a number of reasons. I think we would end up drawing our military into something that may become protracted long term. I believe that if we commit to something like that, as past events have proven, we’ll end up becoming stuck with the problem; we may not have the numbers of allies with us, much like the no fly zones in Iraq. … I think eventually something like that will cause you to have to strike. You’re going to strike air defenses, you might have to engage airplanes, and now we would be involved in military action, which may not sit well in that part of the world regardless of whose side we’re on. I do think the military and others should be involved in any humanitarian efforts that might go on, supplying the refugees, transporting them, taking care of them in any way. But again, I think that ought to be through an international mechanism of some sort.

Recently, the controversial “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was repealed. How do you think this will affect the operations of the military, as well as its image?

We have experience with racial integration [and] with gender integration over the past decades, so we’ve learned a lot from that in the military. I think the military chiefs, the chiefs of service, need to think through all the implications and try to think ahead about how to resolve this. For example, how does this affect benefit status, which right now is determined by, say, marriage, but in this case that’s still not part of this, so how would you determine benefit status to partners or family or whatever. … Unfortunately, it comes in time of war. If this were a period of peace, you could have the leadership more totally focused on this. … But the Congress passed this and it is the law. All these things are leadership issues, and they have to be handled with the commitment of the leadership to make this work in the smoothest possible way.

Would you say this was a good policy to repeal?

In my view, whatever the American people want is a good policy and that is expressed through their Congress. The American people, because [the United States] is a democracy, determine what their military should look like, and if the American people want a military that’s a reflection of society in whatever way, then I think it’s incumbent upon the military to make it that way, and make it effective that way. … I don’t believe it was appropriate for the generals and admirals to give personal views on this. They can have personal views, they are citizens and all, but when they testify, their responsibility is to speak about how this might be implemented, where the issues may come up, what needs to be done, what to look out for, where the challenges may be, how it might be best implemented, and I think we got off track when we had personal views getting mixed in; that’s not their position. When you wear the uniform, your job is to execute whatever the American people, through the voice of their Congress, determine what their military should look like.

During the height of the Vietnam War, there was an incident where Oberlin students surrounded a car driven by an ROTC recruiter and kept his car immobilized for many hours. What would you tell this generation of Oberlin students who might sympathize with what past students did to protest the ROTC and the Vietnam War?

I think we learned something as a society from Vietnam. It began as an anti-Vietnam movement in this country, because we objected to that war specifically in that conflict and our involvement. Then it became anti-war, and then it became anti-military. I think everybody that looks back on that in that generation said that the mistake was to blame the military — decisions to go to war are political, or some overriding existential threat and there’s a reaction …and so the way you have to protest that is not through attacking the military. …I would say that if you have strong feelings about the decision or the conflict in particular, there are ways to express that without it manifesting itself against the military and those that serve or choose to serve. To me, that’s the big difference. As far as the ROTC programs, you are punishing people who see it as a duty, an obligation and have a different point of view, and so why would you attempt to do physical harm to someone who has a different point of view? It flies in the face of academic freedom and open debate and that sort of thing when it turns into a violent reaction in some way.