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Ex-Centcom leader blasts Obama's Iraq approach

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Published:   |   Updated: September 4, 2014 at 06:43 AM

For years, Anthony Zinni, a retired Marine General who once ran U.S. Central Command, blistered the administration of George W. Bush for its handling of Iraq.

Now Zinni is teeing up on President Barack Obama's approach in Iraq, saying he is “worried” by Obama's cautious approach to the current crisis and the Sunni insurgent group Islamic State.

“My God, we are the most powerful nation in the world,” says Zinni, who was widely reported to have been passed over for the ambassadorship to Iraq in 2009 by Obama. “This is a moment we have to act. How many Americans getting their throats cut on TV can we stand?” a reference to journalists James Foley and Florida native Steven Sotloff, both beheaded by IS.

Zinni, on tour promoting his latest book, “Before The First Shots Are Fired”, says he would put as many as 10,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, that the U.S. should hit IS targets in Syria and that he would support the use of special operations forces or CIA operatives on the ground there to get detailed intelligence needed to locate those targets if necessary.

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The world is a complex place. Zinni says he “understand what the President is trying to do. He desperately wants to get us unstuck from a lot of commitments around the world and the expense that military intervention is costing us. That is all well and good, but I think he has been overly cautious in many cases.”

Obama's announcement at a White House news conference last week that “we don't have a strategy yet” for dealing with IS is “troublesome,” says Zinni.

“If he was truly looking for a strategy, that is troublesome enough. It means he does not have one,” says Zinni. “If he meant strategy by miliary action, that is not how strategy is defined. I was troubled by his comment, no matter which way you take it.”

And it's not just the current trouble in Iraq and Ukraine that has Zinni worried about this administration.

“Remember the pivot?” Zinni asks facetiously, referring to Obama's stated desire to shift military focus to Asia. “How the hell is that working out for you? We are mired down in the Middle East. There is a crisis in Ukraine. Our southern border is a problem. It shows a na´vetÚ or not getting the world situation.”

As someone who has spent years dealing with military and government leaders in the Middle East, Zinni says the seeming indecision by Obama is creating problems in the region.

“I still stay in touch with the leadership there,” says Zinni, who was Centcom's commander headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base from 1997-2000. “They are confused...A theme I've heard is that 'you guys can't manage things anymore.'”

But it's not just the Obama administration, says Zinni.

“It goes back to the last one too,” he says. “We blunder into things, causing more chaos and confusion and don't know how to clean things up.”

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Zinni says that if it were up to him, he would send two brigades — between 6,000 and 10,000 troops — into Iraq right now.

Limited airstrikes against IS targets are not enough, he says.

“You cannot control people and ground without ground forces,” says Zinni. “Two brigades would take ISIS out of Iraq in a heartbeat. That might give you time to build up the Kurdish and Iraqi military forces.”

Obama has repeatedly stated his opposition to putting “boots on the ground” in Iraq.

“I don't know why there is this big hand wringing about boots on the ground,” says Zinni. “That leads to mission creep, which generates more casualties. We have 1,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and counting. I am sure they are wearing boots.”

There's another reason Zinni says he has problems with Obama's statements about ground forces in Iraq.

“Why tell the enemy what you are not going to do,” he asks. “That's like Rocky Marciano saying he is not going to throw a right hook in this fight.”

As for what to do about IS in Syria, Zinni says he agrees with U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who has called for hitting their leadership in Syria and will introduce legislation giving Obama authority to do so.

By capturing tanks and howitzers and huge lumbering armored vehicles called MRAPs — short for mine resistant, ambush protected — IS has made it easier to find and hit them, says Zinni. As IS operates in the open, there are many “stand-off” intelligence-gathering options currently available that don't require putting any U.S. personnel in Syria, including drones, satellites, and signals intelligence, says Zinni.

“Obviously the more intelligence you have, the better targeting you have, the more disruption and degrading you are able to accomplish,” says Zinni.

But as they shrink back into Syria, a complex and fluid warzone where rebels are fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad as well as each other, it makes it more difficult to draw a bead on IS, says Zinni.

If stand-off intelligence doesn't work, Zinni says he supports using special operations forces, including Air Force commandos called joint tactical air controllers to help guide bombs and other munitions to target, the use of CIA operatives or some combination to help find and hit IS targets that have blended into the background.

“ISIS is going to begin to target Americans,” says Zinni, using an alternate name of the insurgent group. “The stronger they grow, the more potential they will have to hit targets in Western Europe and the United States. They are going to get bolder and bolder and we will see more atrocities. The things they do warrant this level of attention.”

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With the NATO summit opening Thursday, Zinni says it is important that Obama, and America's European allies, show a strong resolve in the face of Russian moves in eastern Ukraine.

Zinni says Obama's statements in Estonia, that “we will defend our NATO allies, and that means every ally,” is a good step.

By sending troops into eastern Ukraine to bolster rebels, Russian leader Vladimir Putin was taking the opportunity to test two things, says Zinni.

“One is the U.S. leadership in Europe,” he says. “Are we still in charge? And secondly, it is a test of European will and resolve and cohesion. The answer to those questions are being sorted out right now in Wales at the NATO summit.”

If Europeans “vacillate and do not come together and are not willing to have tougher sanctions, then Putin will milk this for all it's worth,” says Zinni.

As for Obama, “making the Estonia guarantee, right up on the Russian border, he better be able to fill that hand.”

If Obama is serious and the Europeans do show resolve, then Putin can be pushed back, says Zinni.

The trick is to do so carefully.

“Putin wants to push this to the brink,” says Zinni. As soon as there is pushback and Europe looks solid and American leadership is in tact, you have to walk this down so Putin does not lose face. You do not want to be in a way he feels he has to react.“

haltman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7629

@haltman

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