ep. 56 - General Anthony Zinni, United States Marine Corps (Retired)

tony zinni


Gen. Zinni s 39 years of military service took him to more than 70 countries. His operational experiences included two tours in Vietnam, where he was severely wounded. His last assignment was Commanding General, U. S. Central Command.


Kyle Davis: With us today is General Anthony Zinni. He is a retired four-star general who spent 39 years in the United States Marine Corps. Afterwards, he had many diplomatic deployments and missions [00:01:00] for the state department including a special envoy to the middle east. He's an expert on all things military, foreign policy, international relations in the environment and everything in between. There's just so much, it's just hard for me to catch my words, so with that being said, General Zinni, how are you?

Gen. Zinni: I'm doing fine. Thank you, Kyle.

Kyle Davis: I'm glad that you're here with us on the podcast today. For those who [00:01:30] don't know you or haven't heard of you before and they want to know a little bit about you, could you give us just a little bit of your background so they know where you're from?

Gen. Zinni: Yes. I grew up right on the outskirts of Philadelphia. My parents were immigrants of this country from Italy. I attended Villanova University. I joined the Marines when I was 18 in the reserves while I was in college. Then with college, I graduated in 1965, [00:02:00] went onto active duty, two tours to Vietnam, stayed in the Marine Corps. Throughout my Marine Corps career, I think I was in 70 countries I counted during that 39 years, of places like Somalia three times, Iraq, lived in Japan, Germany, operations in the Philippines and elsewhere. It was kind of a career that took me all over, and I finally ended up at the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida, which [00:02:30] basically oversaw all military activities and forces in the middle east region.

I retired and I've done things in the corporate world, boards of directors, some corporate executive positions, had nine chairs at universities teaching, did a lot of speaking and a lot peace mediation work, which some ally, I kind of fell into, including the one you mentioned in the middle east as sort of the head negotiator [00:03:00] Arab-Israeli conflicts. I've done others in Indonesia, the Philippines, Africa, and elsewhere. That's kind of where I've been and what I've done.

Kyle Davis: I think when a lot of people have, at least the idea of what the military is or maybe if they have an idea of what the Marine Corps is, they think just a whole bunch of devil dogs hungry for blood. Then they hear somebody like yourself saying peace mediation. Then I think to that point, could you talk [00:03:30] about what the balance is and how you grow into those roles that you get sent to do?

Gen. Zinni: Well I think part of what the military, certainly what the military gives you is in appreciation for peace obviously. I've been in plenty of war zones and been wounded and know what the dramatic and traumatic sides of war are and conflict and instability, so it's not illogical that you find ways into peace [00:04:00] mediation and negotiation, since you know what the consequences are if you fail. The other thing I think military experience brings you is in many of these situations, you deal with military leaders or groups, militia groups, rebel groups, so there's some sort of understanding of who they are based on military experience and some sort of credibility you bring when you're dealing with them because of your own military background.

I also think that having traveled [00:04:30] all around the world and been in and lived in many different cultures, you don't feel ill at ease dealing with cross-cultural mediation and working in areas it may not be culturally the same as we're used to. That kind of familiarity, I think, really helps you in many ways.

Kyle Davis: When you're in a country like Somalia or you're brokering the peace between Israel and Palestine, or in Pakistan or any of the [00:05:00] other countries of the 70 that you've been to, what are some truisms that hold true throughout? Then, I guess, what are some cultural variations probably from region to region?

Gen. Zinni: Obviously, culturally, there's big differences in the way mediation takes place. Some countries and some cultures, the formalities are very strict and they have to be adhered to. Others, they're a little bit more relaxed. Some [00:05:30] cultures, it's fine to be candid. Others, they're more careful because they see it as being disrespectful if it's too open, so it's a little more vague and opaque at times, and you have to draw it out.

Your role, in that situation, could take many forms. In some cases, you may be a mediator where you actually participate, offer ideas, suggestions and recommendations. You may just be a facilitator where you're helping both sides work out their issue, [00:06:00] and in some cases, you may be in a position of the arbitrator where the decision's going to fall to you. That kind of sets up a different way you approach the mediation process, and the process is important.

You have to establish a process that everybody's comfortable with. Sometimes the groups are uneven. You may be dealing with a government and with all their representatives and skilled politicians and negotiators and a rebel group on the other side that doesn't have that kind of structure and confidence, so you got to make sure that [00:06:30] you can get them on an equal footing where they feel comfortable enough that they can discuss the issues.

Many cases, you learn the art of what we call reframing, where you to take what they say and kind of boil it down and restructure it many ways so you can get it to a position where it's able to be negotiated in some ways. You have to draw out parties. You sometimes do this in a midst of violent action too, so you're very conscious of what you're doing [00:07:00] and maybe have a higher priority of getting something like an immediate cease fire before you can actually engage in things that could lead to resolution.

Then the process of getting to an agreement is followed by the implementation of the agreement, which is really the hardest part. Sometimes you're not part of that, but I think it's critically important that if you helped broker the deal, you should be a part of the implementation, since you understand what went on because at that point, you do have to serve as some sort of [00:07:30] arbitrator of what goes on on the ground. You're never going to cover everything in an agreement, every situation that could come up. It's not just a process of reaching agreement.

In the case of the Israeli's and Palestinians, they signed a load of agreements, none of which have been able to be implemented, so it tells you that that step is much more difficult than just finding common ground and writing it on a piece of paper.

Kyle Davis: In talking about Arab-Israeli politics [00:08:00] or the peace process there, with regards to implementation of a deal, like you said, would that be something that would require, in hypothetical sense, boots on the ground, or were you talking about maybe a forcing mechanism or forcing measure that allows for that deal to be implemented properly?

Gen. Zinni: Well, a lot of that depends on acceptability by both sides. I really believe [00:08:30] that if they were to get to a position where there's an agreement and it was being implemented and there were overseers in the process, you would probably find the Israelis demanding there be U.S. involvement participation. They have less trust in something like the United Nations Force. On the Palestinian side, the European Union or the UN would be acceptable, so you may have to find some way that there's a blended participation or even within whatever the construct [00:09:00] is, there's a larger percentage of force or people that will adjudicate situations and events that are more acceptable to one side or the other or both.

The United States plays such a big part in the mediation, I don't think anybody else could do it. There's been attempts by others to do it and never gone anywhere. I think both sides really see the United States has to be part of this because both sides feel the United States will [00:09:30] make sure the other side complies. That's one reason. Whatever's needed to broker the deal, if you go back and think about, what President Carter did with the Israeli, Egyptian and Jordanian peace agreements, we backed that up with support that we're still providing to this day, most of it military support for both sides, so there may be some contribution that maybe only the United States or developed countries can really provide because [00:10:00] of what the cost may be.

Kyle Davis: Going another direction, some of the countries that you've been in, like Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea or even parts of Africa and elsewhere around the world. A lot of people know them as being really bad countries. Definitely, Somalia probably tops the as one of those bad countries if you will. One of the things that we mentioned prior to recording and in your introduction, was that you speak about [00:10:30] the environment and how the environment probably could be influencing actions on the ground.

I was just curious if you had any thoughts on that with regards to those countries.

Gen. Zinni: Yeah, well, countries like Haiti, Somalia, and many other places I've been, you're struck by the poverty, the health issues, the depletion or destruction of the environment, the harsh environment that they're forced to live in, the lack [00:11:00] of potable water, and just basic needs being met. One crop failure and pretty much it's devastation and starvation that they're faced with. It really can be overwhelming when you're out there trying to assist them. I've been around a number of humanitarian operations and it's really tough to watch and see because obviously, the elderly and the young and the weak pay a big price for that.

We're beginning to [00:11:30] see the effects of, I think, the abuse of the environment all over the world. We're becoming an urbanized species I think. We've reached now where 60% of human beings live in cities and not that many years ago, most humans lived outside of cities, but they're clustering in cities. I believe there's a lot of reasons for that, but one is the destruction, depletion or the effects on the environment by things like climate change or whatever, land loss that occurs, water resources that [00:12:00] dry up or are depleted.

I think it's going to be, down the road, a bigger issue that we're going to face. The impact and the effects of this are going to hit pretty hard I think in not too distant future.

Kyle Davis: I remember a few years ago, I was sitting in a lecture when I was at Columbia and we were talking about the world's population. This was in regards to [00:12:30] the graduate school they have there, so the School of International and Public Affairs. What we were talking about was that roughly 70% of the population lives in a littoral low-lying area, so they don't live very far from the coast, so something like maybe a catastrophic tsunami happens again along the coast of India or Pakistan, it's not going to be good or if global waters rise, it's just not going to be good. They're talking about then, that the Pentagon [00:13:00] is investing a lot of money in research discussing climate change and environmental impact regardless of where you believe because there's going to be humanitarian effect on that, right?

Gen. Zinni: Yeah. You could already see it. I think there's something like 15% of the people that live in the south Pacific on islands had to be evacuated. Bangladesh, the land loss has been significant. It's pushed the population centers way back. [00:13:30] You sort of follow the effects, water rises, you lose land. Where do the people go? If climate is significantly, you have temperate zones that may become sub-tropical or tropical. What's the impact on the kinds of diseases and health issues they'll face? How much arable land do you lose? What happens to your agricultural programs and what your used to growing and now can't? There are places in the world where [00:14:00] water aquifers are drying up. Those that depend on glaciers for water, glacial sources are not seeing it.

I think it's happening maybe slowly, so it's hard to see. There are other security aspects to this. The Arctic is going to become a navigable, transportable sea. The Russians have already built bases up there. They have fully-intend-to-exploit resources there. Five nations boarded that. What kind of agreements we're going to have? Are we going to require a naval [00:14:30] presence up there? What does it mean in terms of commerce and trade? It's not all devastation, but it does change the whole picture in terms of security issues and even resource access and exploitation too.

Kyle Davis: Yeah, I was watching something the other day that discussed the Russians are, like you said, doing a mass buildup of all these bases because they're under the perception that maybe there's this giant glut [00:15:00] of oil reserves over there in the ballpark of multiple trillions of dollars, so now they're militarizing it, so they can protect what they believe to be theirs. It could turn into some rather interesting things.

Gen. Zinni: Like?

Kyle Davis: I think of another thing too, now that I'm thinking about it as well is just kind of the environmental impact of something as interesting as unregulated fishing if you look off the coast of what's happening in Somalia where Somalia used [00:15:30] to be a very large fishing country. Now they can't fish because ... They've gone to pirating because other people have come in and taken all their fish from them.

Those are kind of two things that are kind of being tossed around right now in my mind.

Gen. Zinni: Yeah, I saw this when I was in CENTCOM because we had nations that were within our area of responsibility like the Seychelles and Somalia and other places and you saw these huge fishing fleets from the far east and elsewhere that came in. The [00:16:00] fishing practices were horrific. Some cases, they would put cyanide and float it down on the reefs so the fish would rise up, they defend, the sharks, they scrape the bottom of very fragile reef systems. Of course, they deplete stocks in many areas too, so fishing practices, over-fished areas, this continues to be a problem. Also, pollution in the water ... The Pacific has this big [00:16:30] trash bundle that kind of revolves around the flow of the Pacific along the rims and it continues to get worse. Obviously, it has effect on marine life, and it has effect on the quality of the water too. Kyle Davis: Yeah. I think remember probably somewhere there's about the size of Texas or something, there was a rather sizable mass, but I could be wrong on that one.

With what's kind of happening right now in the world, how much of it, [00:17:00] obviously with hindsight being 20/20, how much of it do you think you could've seen coming, probably sans terrorism, but you might be able to include that one in there, but a growing China, a more aggressive Russia, different things like that. What are your thoughts on what's currently happening in the world today?

Gen. Zinni: Well, I think the biggest impact, or impacts I should say, since the fall of the [00:17:30] Soviet Union about 25 years ago, is the rise of globalization and multilateralism. Right now, that's being challenged. I think Brexit sort of began a process where people are looking more toward a nationalist approach and a bilateral approach of doing business and sort of collective approaches like the European Union, globalization issues that one side or another may feel through trade agreements and [00:18:00] other things that occur that they're getting the short straw. I think you're seeing a pushback on that now, but that's sort of been the greatest rising trend.

I think part of that too has been a redistribution of power where it was a bipolar world where you sort of had the Soviet Union and communist block, and you had the west. You're now seeing the rise of China, India, Russia, United States, western Europe, but you're pretty much going to start seeing the Indonesia of the world [00:18:30] and others that are going to be rising up, so there aren't going to be many superpowers around. It'll be a different kind of world to do business in just because you may be the most powerful may not mean you exert the most influence.

I think it's a complex world where you don't deal in simple black and white terms with each other. You may look at another nation that we have to deal with. At the same time, they may be a strategic partner, a strategic competitor, [00:19:00] or a strategic adversary. I can look at China that way right now. I think we partner on a number of things. We're certainly hoping to partner on how we deal with North Korea. We have trade deals that we're trying to work out. They are a competitor, certainly economically, and in some cases there are adventures in the South China Sea and the Philippine Sea that there's an adversarial relationship that's present too. This is a more complex set of relationships.

I think issues like in terms [00:19:30] of what we mentioned in the environment and urbanization are going to affect the world and what do. The transformation of the Islamic world, which is working okay in some places, not so okay in other places, that sort of goes back to the issue of terrorism and extremism, but that's going to be a process. We don't know how long it'll take as there's an adjustment to modernity and they're able to deal with these problems [00:20:00] that seem to rise up and then explode beyond and outside the regional places where they have their roots.

I think there are other issues we're going to face too. I think there's a big education competition in the world. I think, some ways, we in the United States don't get it as much as Chinese and Indians and others get it. They certainly understand the future is in having a highly educated society, and they're pursuing that. [00:20:30] We still are trying to look at resurrecting an industrial base, which probably is not in our future, and we don't know how to educate to support the kind of services of tech industry.

I think the impact of information communication technology, social media, cyberspace have tremendous change and very difficult to operate and no one knows the rules. It's the wild west. In my mind that's a short list of what drives the world, the dynamics [00:21:00] today.

Kyle Davis: You listed just a small list, but it's still a list that's reminiscent of more of a smorgasbord of things that could wrong or things of how the world can change. One of the things that you mentioned was the rise of other powers like Indonesia, India, are you maybe preparing or at least having the conversation started with the belief that it might be a fractionalized world order where there's more [00:21:30] regional hegemonies throughout the world?

Gen. Zinni: I think it will be. I think you'll see regional powers that sort of dominate a given part of the world. It may not be hostile, it may be benign. They just may happen to be the most significant economic power or political power. I don't think necessarily in all areas, although there will be some, where it may be hegemonic intentions. Certainly, you look at [00:22:00] countries like Iran, that they feel it's their birth right as Persians to dominate the region, and that's not in a positive light.

I do think that you're going to find this regionalization become more the way we'll deal with each other than say two major blocks in the world split in two.

Kyle Davis: One of the things that you also talked about was in education competition. I totally agree. Maybe [00:22:30] we're just not getting it here, but what are some things that we could really do. We all hear the words like STEM education and different things like that, but what are other countries like China, India, Japan, Germany, what are they doing that maybe we should look into doing with the regards to education?

Gen. Zinni: First of all, they invest in their educational processes and systems and facilities. I think that's important. If you look in our inner cities and elsewhere, we've allowed our education [00:23:00] infrastructure to really deteriorate. I think there's a psychological aspect to this. I think we have not placed the sort of a cultural value on education as other societies have. That's hurts us in many ways. You know, "School ain't cool." That is something that needs to be changed.

I think looking at the kind of economic system we're going to have [00:23:30] and making sure we're educating toward that. You mentioned STEM. That's one area where we fall short. The demands are certainly greater than our ability to provide people that possess the education and even training that's necessary to meet the demands in those areas.

It's not only maybe education. It might be skillsets that are much needed that don't require college education, but they [00:24:00] require a high degree of skill to do effectively. We aren't meeting those requirements either.

Kyle Davis: Yeah, I'm reminded of my time when I worked in Silicon Valley and the number of individuals that I met that were somewhere in their early 20s to mid-20s who didn't go to college, but they were just very advanced in coding languages and different things like that. Sure, they were making their money then, but a number of them [00:24:30] had government contracts whether it was through some consulting agency or working directly with some government agency to develop programs and software. You just kind of get that feeling that we're not investing that much into STEM, but more importantly to your point, with cyber. We're not putting the emphasis on that.

Gen. Zinni: And I think that's important. I think ... I'm all for academic freedom, and I [00:25:00] would want students to pursue their interest in where they want to go, but I think we should be clear on what the future or what our future needs and where someone's maybe more beneficial future lies if they pursue that particular discipline in their education. There doesn't seem to be a matching of requirements to education. Like I said before, we haven't done well on [00:25:30] appreciation of the value of education as sort of a core value for our society.

Kyle Davis: When you're starting to look at cyber, and you mentioned the phrase, "It's kind of like the wild west," the quote meddling of Russia in the election or even, whether it's Iranian cyber tax or Chinese or North Korean, what are we missing as far as the U.S. is concerned and what [00:26:00] can we probably do better? What should people know about cyber and cyber warfare moving forward? Gen. Zinni: Well, I think from a U.S. perspective, we need to set rules, and we need to establish consequences for things that harm us through attacks in cyberspace. We haven't done. It think we need to push for some sort international [00:26:30] set of rules or protocols in terms of how we work in cyberspace. That's not there. Even in a military sense, we have the Geneva Convention and a Hague Convention and other things that we've certainly tried, and in some respects have respected those, but there's nothing even close to that now in this business.

I know from my own experience in the military, there hadn't been any kinetic exchange, [00:27:00] yet you're under attack in cyberspace and you're defending yourself, and you begin to think, "Am I at war? Has the conflict begun? [inaudible 00:27:13] any rounds fired, but what this guy's trying to do to me is damaging in many respects that could be significantly damaging, and what are my rights and my ethical conditions [00:27:30] for responding to this? How should I do it? What should I do? What are the rules and the laws that impact and guide you on this," and they're just not there.

Kyle Davis: It's almost how do you return fire to something that can't be impacted.

Gen. Zinni: Exactly. I asked an expert in the military when I was in command at CENTCOM and my systems were being hit. Fortunately, our defenses were holding it up, but why can't I shoot back? You can't tell me that we can't create the technology [00:28:00] where somebody attempts to penetrate one of my systems there can be an automatic return response that fries his system. The answer I got, "Yes, you could probably get there. It's technologically possible, but it's not ... You can't do it because of our laws. You have to demonstrate consequence." To me, that's like telling me I'm being shot at but as long as I'm not hit, I can't return fire.

Kyle Davis: Yeah, it's [00:28:30] just something that boggles my mind. I'm reminded, actually, a case, I believe it happened, I want to say Arizona, but some kid who was 13 years old, living in the U.S. was just smart enough to break into or hack, really, the infrastructure system and was able to control a dam. Had he wanted to, he could've flooded the entire middle of the state of Arizona if he just decided to flip some toggle on something, but he did all from the computer in his home. It's just [00:29:00] ridiculous.

I guess my one last thing that you mentioned prior to that is we're doing this, whether you agree with Trump or not or the politics of the time, he's really making an emphasis on resurrecting a lot of these industries that have gone really by the wayside whether it be the automotive industry or the U.S. steel industry or anything else like that. Sure [00:29:30] there could be an argument for a national security interest with regards to U.S. steel, but is that really the direction, keeping politics aside, but is that what you think that we should focusing on or should our focus be more on adjusting to modernity, and I know what you were talking about with that with regards to terrorism, or should we just adjust to modernity here with this is the new age, this is new times, and maybe we should figure out what the new economy is and the direction that we need to go?

Gen. Zinni: [00:30:00] Well, I think, obviously, we are not going to return to a heavy industrial base or economic system. I think that ship has sailed. It doesn't mean that you can't find companies that maybe are taking advantage of cheap labor or cheap resources and producing overseas, and then coming back and selling back here [00:30:30] without any consequences. I think that's part of the Trump policy on how to deal with that. There might be taxes or tariffs that try to gain a level playing field.

Even automotive companies from overseas, Japanese, German and others build plants in the United States and create jobs. That may be more acceptable than an American [inaudible 00:30:59] is just [00:31:00] the opposite and then returns to sell here. I think parts of what the policy is has to do with those things and not just trying to reestablish an industrial base.

I was listening the other day on the radio on a program about the coal industry, and I think right now there's about 60,000 coal miners, health conditions and other problems, and the profitability and the use of coal, [00:31:30] that may be difficult to resurrect. I think at the height of the industry, we had 800,000 at one time, but envisioning how that could come back and be viable, maybe more difficult. It may be more important to invest coal whereas like an appellation elsewhere in re-trading and maybe establishing the different markets or marketable skills and trade and encouragement to move businesses [00:32:00] and things into that region. I think it would be a different approach than maybe trying to resurrect something that rationally, you don't see coming back in any major way.

Kyle Davis: One of the things that I return back to that is now kind of bubbling up in my mind, when you're looking at the middle east, and I know that you spent a lot of time trying to broker deal between the Israelis and Palestinians, but you start to look at all the different factions, whether they be government [00:32:30] factions or anti-government factions like they have in Syria or even terrorists groups from Al-Nusra to Isis to Al-Shabab and everything in between, is it the number of parties or considerations involved that make it so complex or is it something else?

Gen. Zinni: The number of parties could affect the process. When I was working, obviously, with the Israeli [00:33:00] government and the Palestinian authority, this Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon, in my time, there were elements that were not at the table: Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the al-Aqsa Brigades. There was an uncontrollable element that was very violent and was trying to upset the process we were working on, so really intensified attacks, and some of them pretty horrific. [00:33:30] Even in some cases, there are factions that may not be violent, but they politically object to the process, so they stay outside the process and can be very disruptive in what they do, demonstrate, refuse to participate. If they have political clout or they have party representation especially in places where you have multi-party systems like in Israel and elsewhere. They [00:34:00] can take down a government, so that becomes very complex. Not everybody who's part of the issue is at the table. That makes it difficult to get agreements and to set conditions that's going to be applicable to everybody that impacts what's going on.

Kyle Davis: Well, I think that's a good place for us to wrap up. Thank you so much.

Gen. Zinni: Sure.

Kyle Davis: If you would like to book General Anthony Zinni [00:34:30] for your next event or engagement, you can do so by contacting GDA speakers at 214-420-1999 or by visiting gdaspeakers.com, and if you would like to read the transcript from today's podcast, you can do so by going to gdapodcast.com.

Thanks again, General.

Gen. Zinni: Sure, Kyle. Thank you.