Defense Media Network

Interview With Anthony C. ‘Tony’ Zinni

Former CENTCOM commander and chairman of the Board of Directors, BAE Systems, Inc. Part 1 of 4

Anthony C. “Tony” Zinni is the chairman of the board of directors of BAE Systems, Inc., the company’s wholly owned U.S. subsidiary that employs approximately 55,000 employees in the United States, United Kingdom, Sweden, Israel, Germany, Mexico, Switzerland, and South Africa. Zinni joined the Marine Corps in 1961 and was commissioned an infantry second lieutenant in 1965. His 39-year military career included command of a Joint Task Force and a unified command. His final tour of duty was as the commander in chief of U.S. Central Command. After retirement from the U.S. Marine Corps in 2000, Zinni served in numerous diplomatic positions, including U.S. peace envoy in the Middle East and the special envoy to the Henri Dunant Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (Indonesian, Philippines, and Sudan peace effort). Zinni is also a Distinguished Military Fellow for the Center for Defense Information, a part of the World Security Institute, and he has been an instructor in the Department of International Studies at the Virginia Military Institute. He is a graduate of Villanova University with a bachelor’s degree in economics. He holds master’s degrees in international relations from Salvae Regina College and in management and supervision from Central Michigan University, as well as honorary doctorates from Villanova University, The College of William & Mary, and the Maine Maritime Academy. His books include the bestsellers Battle Ready and The Battle for Peace, and his Leading the Charge was published in August 2009. Zinni sat down recently with John D. Gresham and Susan L. Kerr for an exclusive and wide-ranging interview.

The Year In Defense – Can you tell us something of your background? Where you were born and went to school, your life growing up, and your early career in the Marine Corps?

Gen. Anthony “Tony” Zinni – Well, I grew up right outside Philadelphia. My parents were both immigrants to the United States. They came when they were young with my grandparents, both from Italy, both from the same part of Italy. Met here and married. I grew up in a small mill town right on the outskirts of Philadelphia, a place called Conshohocken, Pa., on the Schuylkill River.

My father was a chauffeur and came to this country in 1910. My mother came in 1906. He was drafted into the Army and served in World War I, my brother in the Korean War, cousins in World War II, at the Battle of the Bulge and in the Pacific. All drafted into the military.

I went to Catholic school and Villanova University as a commuter student. I had to work my way through school; my father helped with the tuition. I joined the Marine Corps my first day on campus in the Platoon Leader Class program. So, when I graduated, I was commissioned a second lieutenant in 1965.

When were you commissioned into the Marine Corps?

I was commissioned in June 1965. I joined the Corps in ’61, and was commissioned a second lieutenant in ’65.

You timed it pretty well to get into the Vietnam War didn’t you?

Actually, right after I graduated and was in the Marine Corps Basic School – second lieutenants go through there for their initial training – is when the Marines landed in I Corps [northern South Vietnam] region. The beginning of U.S. combat troops in Vietnam. I initially went to Camp Lejeune, N.C., with the 2nd Marine Division. I was an infantry officer, platoon commander. I was actually a platoon commander and rifle company commander as a second lieutenant, and then commanded an infantry training company as well. So, I had two company-size commands as a lieutenant, which was unusual.

I went from there to the U.S. Army’s John F. Kennedy Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg, N.C., as a precursor to going to Vietnam as an advisor to the Vietnamese Marines. Spent almost a year in country there. Just about coming up on my year in Vietnam, I contracted a bunch of diseases, as almost every advisor did, and I was evacuated. I then spent some time at our Basic School as an instructor – tactics, counterinsurgency, that sort of thing.

Then I went back to Vietnam as a company commander and was wounded, spent time as a company commander on Okinawa after recovery on Guam, and then was a company commander again in the 2nd Marine Division. The initial advisory tour was fascinating because of the exposure to the culture, and the Vietnamese Marines were the elite forces of the South Vietnamese military. I saw a lot of action, action as an advisor and company commander. I had command of six companies and three platoons as a company-grade officer, which I think was just a lucky roll of the dice as it turned out.

That’s got to ground you in the infantry pretty solidly doesn’t it?

I think it does develop leadership values as you try to learn by trial and error, but I really think you get the valuable experiences from all the different kinds of places that you are exposed to in command, whether it’s in Vietnam, or it’s in Okinawa, or it’s in Camp Lejeune, N.C.

It’s also interesting to note that you had a fairly strong early experience with the special warfare community.

I did. First of all, going to JFK Center at Fort Bragg for the course then that they ran for advisors and trainers, I was fascinated by the Army Special Forces and their training and unique missions. I was highly impressed with the senior-staff NCOs and warrant officers there. I got to know many of them and their superb officers through the years.

Later, as a lieutenant colonel, I headed a section at our Marine Corps headquarters that was responsible for special operations and terrorism counteraction issues and capabilities. It was an interesting time in that we made decisions on the Marine Corps’ contribution to SOF and developed the MEU(SOC) concept at the time.

How does that affect your approach today to your philosophies of service, command, management, diplomacy, and all the other things that you have done over the past couple of decades?

I obviously had a real fascination with small-unit tactics and individual field skills, and being with the Vietnamese Marines I think taught me a great deal. They were basically light infantry. They lived off the land. We did not have MREs or C-rations or anything like that. So, their field skills and their bush knowledge were really great. I saw how they operated, like the enemy, as opposed to American units that had helicopters and heavy logistics lines. The Vietnamese didn’t like helicopters coming into their areas unless it was for critical requirements. It would disclose their positions, especially when you’re in the jungle. They operated with very little equipment. And I thought for that kind of war, it was the right approach. Americans with such a heavy personal load, but also the logistics support dependency and everything else, I thought limited us.

The other exposure I got, as part of the course at Bragg, was language through training, high-intensity language training, with Vietnamese families that were down there that were contracted to teach us, not only the language but also about the customs and the culture. Of course, the best teacher was being exposed to that and living in the villages; they had a quartering act in Vietnam, so you moved in with the people when we were in the villages. I got to see the war from that side, from the people’s perspective.

It didn’t dawn on me how different a perspective on that war that I was seeing until I got back after my first tour and at the Basic School, where I joined back up with a number of my contemporaries who had come back from the Marine divisions in the north, the 1st and 3rd Marine divisions. When we would talk about the war, I realized that I saw a totally different war. First of all, I saw the war from the DMZ [demilitarized zone] all the way down to the Mekong Delta, because the Vietnamese Marines moved around. I also saw the war through the eyes of the people.

You weren’t just in the northern I Corps region?

I was actually in all four corps areas – the Capital Military District and the Rung Sat Special Zone, all the sectors of South Vietnam. I saw everything from conventional fighting against the North Vietnamese Army to pure guerilla operations, along with the riverine operations. I operated in the mountains, coastal areas, swamp/river networks, jungle, and urban areas. It was kind of this totality of what the war was about, and it was very different in each of these areas. But I also saw it from the perspective of the people, as I said, which I think gave me a totally different view than those who were only with U.S. units and had really little exposure to the population. They didn’t understand the people, didn’t talk to them, and didn’t live with them.

Our approach with the Vietnamese Marines goes back to [Lt. Col. Victor] Croziat, who established the Marine Advisory Unit, and who had been with the French during the Indo-China War as an observer. He believed the most effective way to advise is to throw yourself totally in and trust the Vietnamese. So, we only had two officers to every battalion. We didn’t have advisory teams like most other advisory efforts. Our radio operators were Vietnamese Marines and usually the battalions were split, so I rarely saw another American.

So, you were very much like the small two- and three-man teams the Special Forces would use?

The senior advisor stayed with the battalion commander and the junior advisor, what I was, went out with anything from a squad-size patrol to a company-sized operation. If the battalion split, the XO would take half and I’d go with him. You were completely exposed to small-unit operations and out on your own in that environment.

You must have been humping a lot in Vietnam as a young lieutenant.

Oh, we did. I think the time I spent with small units on light infantry operations, patrols, etc., working at small-unit skills and living with the people, sort of shaped my view, especially in that kind of counterinsurgency mission.

Your mid-level career – major, lieutenant colonel, and such – anything defining or special in there for you?

My mid-career, non-operational tours tended to be training, teaching, and instruction assignments. I ran an infantry training center at Camp Lejeune. I also taught at our Basic School, and was always in tactics or operations instruction. I also taught at our Marine Corps Command and Staff College. I tended to have a second track in training and education assignments, along with working in doctrine development, when I was not in the operational forces. In the operational forces, I was a battalion commander, executive officer of a battalion, and operations officer, all infantry.

But always with a hands-on, field officer orientation?


Can you talk a bit about your command-level experience?

After command of the platoons, companies, and battalion, I commanded a Marine infantry regiment on Okinawa, Marine Expeditionary Unit also on Okinawa, Marine Expeditionary Force on the West Coast, Joint/Combined Task Force in Somalia, and Unified Command [U.S. Central Command].

[Former Commandant of the Marine Corps] Chuck Krulak was sure proud of your work there, by the way. Can you talk a bit about your work with him?

Chuck revamped the Combat Development Center at Quantico, [Va.] because he felt strongly that it didn’t have the relevance to the operational forces that he wanted it to have. Obviously, Quantico’s mission dealt with concepts, doctrine, organization, requirements and training, and education. He wanted to really energize it. His measure of success was not the paper you’re producing but whether the operational forces thought we were credible and met their needs. He wanted Quantico to be something the entire Marine Corps saw as the heart, soul, and mind of the Corps and delivering what they needed to be successful on the battlefield. As his deputy, I was involved in much of the dynamic restructuring he did at Quantico.

You operated under the very early implementations of Goldwater-Nichols/Nunn-Cohen. You then lived with those reforms for the rest of your career. Given that you were there at the beginning – before that, during, and after – with a little bit of perspective as we’re now 20-some years along since the legislation became law, what do you like about the Goldwater-Nichols/Nunn-Cohen construct today? What do you dislike, and what would you change if you could?

First of all, I thought it was probably the greatest piece of legislation, military legislation, that has been enacted for several reasons. Obviously, the services prior to that operated in what I would call a “deconfliction” mode. In other words, their sole interaction was to stay out of each other’s way and to find a way of doing that. When Goldwater-Nichols was brewing, I was at our Marine Corps headquarters and I somehow got involved in the whole “joint” business. I knew our service chief at the time wanted to kill it, along with all the other service chiefs. It was the only thing we cooperated on. I had a long discussion with the commandant about this – “Why do you want to kill it?” And he said, “Well, this is the danger. Anytime you have legislation that forces integration, it creates another bureaucratic level, so we’re going to have this class of mandarins,” he said, “Purple-suiters imposed on top of the services.”

Their fear was that there would be this joint structure that would be separate from the services. If you think about the way the intelligence community came together after 9/11, and Homeland Security earlier in this decade, that’s exactly what they did. There is a tendency to create more bureaucracy that sits on top and it tries to force integration and it never works. But I thought the brilliance of Goldwater-Nichols was that the integrating structure, the joint command structure, would come from the services. In other words, you as a serving officer would have your tours in the joint commands but would return to your service. There was also a congressionally mandated demand for quality in joint officers, and you needed those joint tours to get promotion.

So, Congress was creating it out of whole cloth, and in each joint command [CENTCOM, EUCOM, PACOM, etc.] would be a service component, so you would have service representation, a sense of ownership, and true participation in decisions. There weren’t these “purple-suiters” that other nations’ militaries have tried before.

I went into the joint world the day I got promoted to brigadier general and spent virtually my entire tenure as a general officer in joint work; I watched it go from that “deconfliction” construct to coordination to true integration by the time I left the service in 2000. It needed more improvement and it’s getting there now, but in the beginning everything was identified as Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and special operations. Ten years later, from what I saw, people were blind to uniforms. When we were creating organizations for a mission and task organizing, people were talking about capabilities, melding capabilities. I thought that the integration and the synergy and the efficiency you get – and I saw this as a joint commander – was a tremendous advancement.

The big problems were in joint doctrine. It was like pulling teeth to get the services to agree on creating doctrine for joint capabilities like a land component command, a logistics component command, or a joint air component. But it evolved. The air was the toughest one at the beginning, but it actually was the first to get integrated. We now need to effectively integrate the different agencies of government as we did the services.

Such as the 2002 Department of Defense Title 10 addition that allowed SOF officers to create and command Joint Task Forces?

I think SOF should be a fifth component. I think having JSOTFs [Joint Special Operations Task Forces] are operationally effective ways to employ SOF. But the combatant commander, the regional combatant commander, needs to be in charge. Nobody should come into my area of operations [AOR] and conduct operations without me being in charge and without me knowing about it. That has happened.

Isn’t it fair to say that a number of the problems we had in Mogadishu back in 1993 were because you had a JSOC component in there not properly coordinating with the other U.S. and United Nations forces? What were your personal observations of that situation when you arrived?

When Ambassador Robert Oakley and I landed three days after the Battle of Mogadishu, Oct. 3rd and 4th, 1993, our mission – we had previously stopped in Eritrea and Ethiopia and contacted Gen. [Mohamed Farrah] Aidid – was to make arrangements to go out to his hideout to meet him. We were going to be picked up by his gunmen and going to demand the release of Warrant Officer Michael Durant [a 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment pilot who had been shot down and captured during the firefight], and to get a ceasefire and then put things back together.

When we landed, it was a mess in there. You couldn’t tell who was in charge of anything. Oakley said to me, “Before we go out tomorrow morning, make sure all military operations are shut down. I don’t want to be in Aidid’s headquarters and all of a sudden, there’s an attack on us.”

So, I had to deal with five separate military commands without any unity of command, a basic guiding principle of war. Nobody was in charge. There should have been one U.S. commander there.

How did the talks over the return of Mike Durant and Aidid’s captured subordinates go?

He ought to send a big “thank you” to Ambassador Bob Oakley. Aidid’s guys wanted an exchange of prisoners, to which Oakley said, “That’s not going to happen. We’re not going to do that and there’s no negotiating for prisoners. Before we go any further, you have to release him unconditionally. That’s the first gesture.”

It was heated, the debate and discussion. It was just Oakley, me, and Randy Beer, the three of us there in this compound with them. It was tense but they respected Oakley like no one else. In the end, they agreed. I had an interesting discussion with Aidid about the tactics and strategy he used as he confronted the SOF units and others at that time. He was a clever tactician.

We really did play into his hands, then?

I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t there, but he was describing from his end the tactics they applied.

Is it true Aidid was bipolar?

Oh! Definitely! Schizophrenic. There were really three Aidids, with three distinct personalities that I could determine from my first tour there with Operation Restore Hope.

Let’s return to your first love, the Marine Corps, and the Navy too, because as you know, there’s been a recent effort to change the name to the Department of the Navy and Marine Corps.

I’m right up front with that initiative.

I was wondering what your thoughts on that were going to be.

The Marine Corps is a separate service. We are proud of our naval heritage and our service with the Navy but we also do other things, as we are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. We need a secretary that has the title and mission to deal with Marine issues. This also recognizes the service the Corps has given this nation for over two centuries.

Since 9/11, the Corps has fallen somewhat out of its amphibious and expeditionary specialties to primarily having been used to reinforce large Army units hundreds of miles inland, frequently in barren places with very little resemblance to the littoral doctrines for which they were created. Give us your view of how the Corps has evolved in the past decade, with the Navy as well.

Well, first of all, I don’t think “expeditionary” just means naval. I think that the fact that Jim Mattis [now a general and commander of U.S. Joint Forces Command] and his Marine expeditionary unit were projected 1,500 miles inland into Afghanistan proves that point. They were some of the first troops in there. Also remember that in World War I, we provided a brigade into the trenches and eventually the commander, Gen. John Lejeune [the 13th commandant of the Marine Corps], commanded the Army division that the brigade was part of. We’re the only service whose mission and structure is set in law. It is primarily amphibious, but it is also “as the president may direct” and to do other things. I think that is unique to the United States in having a fourth service that has this ability to engage in all the other dimensions with all other services. It can provide air power, it can provide projection of power from the sea, and it can engage in land campaigns. It has full service status. Ever since we became a full-service component under Goldwater-Nichols, our operational units are no longer just the Fleet Marine Forces.

Which takes us to something you were talking about, that issue of humanitarian and peacekeeping and disaster relief operations. They’ve really become a major share of those operations from the sea over the past decade or two. Do you feel, as it sits right now, the Navy-Marine Corps team is really well-structured and equipped for such operations? What would you do to improve it? For example, do we need more hospital ships? What would you say we need to be doing and how are they set right now?

The advantage they [the Navy/Marine Corps team] bring is sea basing, where you don’t have to have a big footprint ashore and they can operate from offshore. But then the problem becomes, because the shipbuilding budget is so tight, having sufficient numbers of ships that fit that mission, be they amphibious ships or support ships. We have MPF [Maritime Prepositioning Force] ships and other assets that provide the logistics, hospital facilities, and other capabilities to such an effort. If this were a different world, and we could afford more, you could build more components to a sea base.

For example, when we were in Somalia, we did not want a big footprint ashore, so we had MPF ships and amphibious ships offshore, which we used for our medical treatment. We ran our air off them, our helicopters, medevacs, and other things. We had an MPF ship that we could bring in and offload what we needed, and put back what we don’t need. So the sea basing is the biggest advantage of the Navy/Marine Corps team in these things and the ability to sustain it from the sea, in the littorals primarily. Naval forces can also loiter offshore, over the horizon, minimizing security and political problems that may come from being committed ashore.

Looking forward, 2025 will be the 250th anniversary of the Navy and the Marine Corps. Linked as they are, what do you see them looking like and what do you see their roles and missions like in the decade after next?

In terms of the Marine Corps mission, I don’t see it changing. The defense budgets will be strained. There will be more emphasis on technology. There will probably be drawdowns on larger units, but the ability of the Marine Corps to reinforce on the ground and to provide the projection of force onto land from the sea will be there. The ability of the Marine Corps to operate in an austere environment in an expeditionary manner with a light footprint and to work humanitarian disaster relief and other missions will still be there. I don’t see a real change in their mission, and the Navy’s part in that, too.

I do think that there’s going to be a bigger issue, maybe, in terms of protecting the sea lanes that may be coming up. The need is going to be there for the Navy to maybe go back to the ideas of sea control and sea denial and, really, more sea presence. The question becomes budgetary constraints and affordability, and what they can do within those limitations. The question is “How many ships can we afford?” I think it’s going to be a problem in those terms. I don’t see a major change in roles and missions in 15 years.


You talk, though, in all your books to some degree about the failed opportunities of that decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of communism as we knew it. You made the point that this has led to instability in nations and that that instability is the cause of the world that we live in right now. Can you talk a little bit about those two decades of instability and what the current state of discourse and dialogue among nations of the world, the working ones, are?

I think in the last century, the 20th century, the world reordered itself three times. The first two times were after the world wars. At the end of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson felt that we had to change. He felt that as a result of centuries of colonialism, imperialism, and militarism, that the world community had to come together in a League of Nations based upon his “14 Points.” Obviously, it was rejected by our isolationist Congress and population. Then at the end of World War II, you had [President Harry] Truman and [Gen. George C.] Marshall, along with [Sen. Arthur H.] Vandenberg in the Congress, a Republican and basically an isolationist originally. And now in this situation, the world had changed and the United States – and this is after a military victory over the Axis nations – restructured its government, restructured our military, and restructured the world. We’ve also invested much of our treasure to change the societies we had just fought.

It used to be that the guys who lost wars paid reparations to the nations that won. Now the winners were going to pay the losers to rebuild. I mean, these actions are totally crazy by previous standards of behavior of governments. Things like the Marshall Plan, setting up the World Bank, creating the National Security Council, and the 1947 National Security Act revamping the U.S. government were radical ideas. Republicans and Democrats, they remarkably saw that even though we’re at the top of the heap and have just won World War II, it’s a different world. Now fast-forward to the third reordering following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Maybe because it didn’t come at the end of a hot war, here’s [President George H.W.] Bush, [General Secretary of the Communist Party Mikhail] Gorbachev, and the other leaders, and the best they can do is say, “Well, there’s going to be a new world order and there’s going to be a peace dividend.” And no one knew what that meant. No one said, “We have to create the new world order.” You can’t just let it self-order, because the chaos theory holds that everything will reorder itself but it could reorder itself in bad ways if you don’t influence the reordering.

What I think happened, and this is arguable, when the Soviet Union collapsed, it unleashed a number of things. First and foremost, the biggest influence on the new world was globalization. Globalization is to the 21st century what industrialization was to the last, but it’s creating “haves” and “have-nots.” Not everybody shares in its benefits; there are all sorts of problems. Globalization then really challenged the nation-state model. Business globalizes easily, because it knows no borders. It never has. So, right away business said, “If we don’t have East and West, communism and democracy, if those aren’t as meaningful now and as sharply divided, and we’re free to do business, we’re going to globalize.” Economically, we globalize. Then we globalize in other ways, including the idea of a World Court among other things. So, that was the first of the changes, and we [the United States] didn’t see its effects clearly.

The second of the changes was, “Now that the world has become much friendlier, it appears we’re free to move and migrate.” And then I think major diasporas occurred. Many moved into Europe, and people from south of our border moved north into the U.S. Everybody goes where the opportunity is, so you have the migrations beginning to come into the developed world.

The third part was the rise of the Information Age – the Internet, communications, access to information – with no assurance on the quality of the information. So now we’re flooded with unverifiable information, and the ability to communicate it anywhere.

The fourth was the rise of the non-state actors, some of them good – I mean, the NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] are well-intended, they focus on humanitarian issues and building capacity in troubled areas. However, these borderless structures now challenge existing nation states – and include bad ones like organized criminal gangs, warlords, and religious extremists. So you have their rise.

The fifth one is urbanization. [As of] about two years ago, for the first time in the history of man, more people live in cities than live outside the cities. Urbanization has created its own set of problems.

The sixth one is the effects on the environment. Whether natural or man-made, you burn down the rain forests, you release fluorocarbons in your manufacturing processes, and you deplete arable land, you create massive environmental problems that know no borders.

All these things – and there are about five or six more that I mentioned in the book The Battle for Peace – these things created the perfect storm. This meant that the world was changed in the course of less than two decades in major ways, creating instability in many cases. Unfortunately, because it also created a great interdependence, people could move and act more freely. Mighty oceans didn’t protect you. You ended up with the fact that instability became the enemy – instabilities where a society can’t cope with its hostile environment, whether man-made or naturally occurring. When it can’t cope, it does bad things. It grows poppies and coca leaves. It becomes a sanctuary for terrorists. It packs up its bags and moves somewhere else and creates a problem for its neighbors. It depletes its resources. It could be anywhere. It could be Haiti, it could be Somalia, and it could be Afghanistan.

And these become the failed states of today’s world?

They become failed or incapable states. And now in remote parts of the world, where we thought we shouldn’t care except out of a sense of altruism, problems were washing up on our shores. The real problem is everybody in this town [Washington, D.C.] still thinks we’re in the Cold War. We have a government that’s a bloated bureaucracy, and we can’t think strategically anymore. There are no more Marshalls. We don’t plan. We don’t see the world the way it is. We have unrealistic themes like “self-sufficiency” and “buy American,” and other things that deny the realities of the present-day interdependent world. We have relics of the post-World War II era, global structures like the United Nations and others that need to be revised to reflect today’s world. We still have post-World War II positioning of our military forces. Why are we in Germany? Why are we in Japan? Why are we in South Korea? All exacerbate the problem. We have a military that looks like a smaller version of the Cold War military. As a matter of fact, Gen. “Black Jack” Pershing could come here today, command this military, and understand it. Yeah, the guns shoot a little further and the communications are a little better. But it never has changed or adapted or transformed as it was supposed to.

Remember all the discussions of transformation? Actually, [George W.] Bush and [Al] Gore ran on that. Both were committing large amounts of money to the transformation process, and the U.S. military never transformed. Remember before Sept. 11, 2001, the Rumsfeld Pentagon was going to cut the Army down to three or four divisions. The argument there was that large ground units were passé and were no longer needed. And now we’re building up the Marine Corps and the Army, which shows you how much they didn’t get it. It was all going to be things like space-based intelligence systems, precision weapons systems, and network-centric warfare. Even in the intelligence community, I think we’re woefully inadequate and have had many failures in predicting events and threatening capabilities of potential adversaries.

In your book The Battle for Peace, you talk about the United States being an imperial power. You make a very valid case that we were imperial, we are imperial, and we will be imperial. Can you explain what you mean by that?

I don’t mean to say that we’re imperial in the way the Romans or British once were. I make it clear that we are an empire of influence, not an empire of conquest. The old empires were empires of conquest. Back then, you went out there, you took the land, and you took its resources. You bled it. We [the United States] have unintentionally and reluctantly become an empire because of our influence. We influence cultures and the social aspects of those cultures to a large degree. It’s influence when everybody’s watching Hollywood movies and listening to American rock and roll. It’s influence if they buy American products and American fashion. This is the imperialism that we have unintentionally and reluctantly spread. We have done much good in the world, but we need to understand the power of our presence and some of the unintended consequences of it.

In the opening chapter of The Battle for Peace, you give that example of driving with some foreign national in some foreign country and his pointing at the row of KFC, McDonald’s, and Burger King. What does he say to you?

Yeah, that’s the “cultural center.” [Laughs]

I mean, what have we done out there in the world in general?

I don’t think we did anything deliberately wrong. We didn’t say, “We are going to undermine your culture by infusing ours into yours.” There are those that think that we have, and I don’t mean the extremists that don’t like our cultural influences, feel it has hurt theirs, it’s taken away and corrupted their youth. From their set of values, they have a point. Now, it was not intentional. I don’t use the term “imperial.” I use the term “empire.” Remember, an empire of influence, and a reluctant one at that. We don’t have imperial designs in the old sense that “we want to own you.” The other interesting point that goes along with this is how you look at allies. Our definition of an ally is that it does 100 percent completely what we want them to do, is in our interests, and we don’t owe them anything for it. We need to treat our allies much better.

Someone who will do as they’re told and they’ll like it?

Allies may disagree with us at times. We have to be more understanding in those cases and remember the value overall. We have short memories at times.

Which, by the way, brings us to an additional question about allies. What do you think about NATO and other regional alliances, and do you think coalition building is a good thing still?

I think NATO’s performance in Afghanistan has been less than what it should have been. With the exception of a handful of nations, they didn’t stand up to the commitment as they should have in my view.

But of the “special-relationship” countries, they (the British) are certainly the most special over time are they not?

The Brits have been the strongest of all our allies over the last century. Sometimes I feel we aren’t appreciative of their support and commitments. All nations do things that are in their own interests but you have to reward your allies and be understanding of theirs.

You’ve described a “crescent of conflict” running from the Horn of Africa and the south shores of the Mediterranean to the Indian subcontinent in The Battle for Peace. What is the current state of that crescent? Is there hope anywhere there?

I actually think it’s expanded into a band, which I would say begins in our hemisphere in parts of South and Central America, goes across Africa, goes through the Middle East, goes into Southwest Asia into places like Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and then out into Southeast Asia, in places like the Philippines, Malaysia, and Burma.

So, you’re saying this “band of conflict” is based in the equatorial areas of the world?

And I think that, again, is a band of potential instability. You have people who are fighting one way or another for hegemonic dominance, whether it’s Hugo Chavez, the drug cartels in our hemisphere or in Africa, with the warlords, corrupt governments, or extremists in the Middle East or Iran seeking regional hegemony, and it goes on out into the Pacific Rim. That tends to be the band that creates most of the problems we face today. I like the idea that the people in the Pentagon are beginning to focus on what’s now called the “global commons,” because the way the threats manifest themselves are in these common domains. I like to say that there are five domains in which we interact with other societies: land, air, sea, space, and cyberspace. If you think about it, those are the five domains or mediums through which we engage with others.

In terms of land: our borders, protecting our borders, worrying about where natural resources are and access to those resources, environmental issues. At sea, we can see the pirates, access to the Straits, and the littorals that cause problems. We can see the threats to the free usage of the air and airspace. You and I go to the airport, and we know that there’s a threat when there’s the underwear bomber, Richard Reed the shoe bomber, and whatever explosive garment is next. Protecting the airways and access to the use of the air. Obviously, space: keeping it demilitarized, having access to it, using it in ways that benefit communications and intelligence gathering. And now cyberspace, which is probably the biggest new area of threat right now. These are the five mediums or domains or whatever you want to call them, that are the common areas of the globe [in which] we interact, and are where the threats manifest themselves and where you have to protect yourself or control or deny to your enemies.

If you were in the position to formulate a Tony Zinni Doctrine, what would it be?

I think it would have several components. One would be to be a leader in engaging the world in cooperative structures that reflect today’s world and help that world stabilize itself. The United Nations is a bloated bureaucracy in grave need of restructuring … because its bureaucracy is in some cases inefficient and even in some instances has been corrupt, as has been proven by the Oil-for-Food scandal. The Security Council doesn’t reflect the way the world power is today. I think that we [the United States] ought to be building partnerships – regional, international. They ought to be geared and focused on certain things. Some of these partnerships would not just be between nation-states but within nongovernmental organizations. We have some good models, like the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNICEF, or some of those kinds of programs. We see the disasters in these strings of earthquakes. What happens when an earthquake ravages an area and everybody pours in? They’re uncoordinated. The Fairfax County [Va.] Fire and Rescue Department and the Israelis show up, among others. And then the big complaint is, “Nobody’s in charge! Everybody’s doing their own thing.” So, why don’t we have regional and international cooperative networks that can control and coordinate these things, bring them together, and pull them together in some way?

We may have a Peace Corps, but why isn’t there an international Peace Corps? Why don’t we help countries in terms of developing their agriculture, their understanding of land management, managing manufacturing practices, things that help stabilize the world? Institution building is the key to preventing instability or recovering from instability because it’s social, political, economic, and security institutions that make a society stable. But we don’t know how to cooperate or to build regional capacity or to support that. So, part of my doctrine would [be to lead] in building these international and regional capabilities and helping stabilize the world.

Do you see the need for some sort of freestanding pre-prepared structures, much like the regional commands for nongovernmental organizations and other organizations to follow?

I think you could do that. For example, let’s take disaster relief and disaster preparedness. I went to a convention of the Inter-American Development Bank for our Southern Hemisphere and the number one issue that they all talked about, all the senior leadership of governments, from Central and South America, was disaster preparedness. They wanted help. They know where the earthquakes and the hurricanes are going to hit, and when they do they get worldwide relief. But what they need is worldwide support to be better prepared and to build a capability to better withstand the disasters that strike. If they don’t get that assistance, they will just suffer repeated disasters.

Isn’t that the definition of insanity, to keep doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result?

Yes it is. If we invested in prevention and improved infrastructure, it would be cheaper than repeated emergency reactions that never improve the situation.

How about revivifying some of the old treaty organizations like OAS or ANZUS?

I think the organizations need to be based around a different premise, not just military or security necessarily. If you’re going to benefit people from a political structure, it ought to be to help also to build government capacity to administrate and govern. Also to build education systems, better social institutions, and better economic institutions. There’s more to stability than just building security institutions.

Convenience and enlightened self-interest just aren’t enough anymore?

No one thinks about this, but the most unlikely trio of allies was the U.S., the U.K., and Russia [the Soviet Union] in World War II. The United States of America was partnering with an empire that wanted, at the end of this world war, to regain its empire. [President Franklin D.] Roosevelt and Marshall were constantly arguing with [Prime Minister Winston S.] Churchill, who wanted to make sure that the peripheral operations in Burma and in India and the Mediterranean were to reclaim British imperial possessions. Marshall fought this bitterly and said, “We’ll go to Germany. We’ll take out the Nazis. But we’re not going to rebuild your empire. We reject that concept.” Then in 1941, here’s Russia … an expansionist, dictatorial nation that wants to bring Eastern Europe under its hegemony. So these three, this democracy [the U.S.] – counter-colonialism and empire-building – this “regain my empire and former glory” [Great Britain], and this hegemonic dictator [Joseph Stalin of the USSR] form an alliance to get through World War II. It’s the most unbelievable alliance in history. Allies won’t always be U.S. clones, so we have to weigh the importance of the alliance and the priorities that arrangement helps us meet.

What have you learned, in the time that you’ve been with BAE and other companies, about the state of the business of defense? What do you see that needs to be changed on both the government and business sides to get more out of the budgets that we’ve got?

The defense industry is obviously big business. It is powerful, as Eisenhower pointed out. It certainly has delivered a tremendous set of capabilities to our armed forces that made them dominant on the battlefield. There are many dedicated, patriotic men and women working in the industry who want to deliver the finest technology, support, and systems to our troops. The industry has to always remember those whom we are supporting, and to be conscious of their responsibility as well to the taxpayer whose hard earned money pays for that support. It is closely scrutinized and held accountable, as it should be. We need the best defense industry, for obvious reasons, and it should always be held to the highest standards of business conduct.


BAE is an international consortium, and it’s more likely than not to add foreign components, certainly in the Far East, the rim of the Pacific, South Asia. What are the differences that you encountered when doing business with foreign ministries overseas versus places like Europe and the United States?

You have to adhere to U.S. law and ethical standards, like the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, wherever you do business. You may lose business because others do not have the same standards, but I think in the long run it will enhance your credibility. There can’t be any compromise on this, and I’ve seen instances where companies fail to understand this. Each company must have an established, strict, and understood code of business conduct. Their people must know the code, believe in it, and live it. It must be part of the company culture. You must also be careful to protect technology that cannot be shared. Strict compliance and inspection to meet U.S. security rules in this matter are an absolute necessity for every company doing business internationally.


So, you have to establish security compartments within your corporate structure at BAE?

Not only that, but the reason that we have a separate board of directors that I’m chairman of is for that primary purpose. We have a government security committee within our board of directors, made up of outside directors that report to the Defense Security Service [DSS], and we are required to monitor the company on behalf of the U.S. government and ensure compliance with this. DSS conducts rigid inspections on the company and we ensure compliance with the regulations, corrections of findings, and implementation of policies. Since BAE’s parent company is foreign, we, the U.S. subsidiary, operate under a Special Security Agreement [SSA] that the outside directors are responsible to see complied with to the fullest.

Your control and access processes must be very demanding.

We have exceptionally thorough processes, which we have to monitor, ensure compliance with, update, and enforce. Every BAE Systems, Inc. board meeting begins with the Defense Security Service coming in, meeting with our Government Security Committee separately, and reporting the current status of inspections and other security matters. It is the first, and primary, order of business. The full board is then briefed on the issues and status.

Welcome to the world of defense globalization.

I think there is a place for international defense cooperation. It can provide for standardization with allies, sharing of technology where appropriate, and give the U.S. access to other technologies. As we saw with the MRAPs [Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles] that provided the best protection for our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, sometimes the best capabilities can come from somewhere else. In this case, from a South African design out of our operation there.

I remember reading in a press release when it came out that you had been named acting president, CEO, and chairman of the board at BAE. What was the back story on that?

I’d been a board member of BAE since 2001. The CEO was also the chairman of the board. When our chairman/CEO left, I was asked to temporarily assume both roles while we did a search for a new leader. After we appointed our CEO, I was asked to stay on as chairman. It made sense due to the many responsibilities for both positions.


And did it have to be an international search?

No, we didn’t do that. We only did Americans. We could only have an American because of the SSA.

And your duties as chairman of BAE Systems, Inc. today are?

One is to ensure compliance with the DSS Special Security Agreement. That’s number one. Second, obviously, is to look internally at the governance, ethical behavior, and code of conduct, all that within the company. Third is to monitor and oversee the business end, the financial and fiduciary aspects, and the strategic planning. We are directly involved in work with acquisitions, and mergers, and any divestitures that the company does on the U.S. side. Obviously, that has to go through a government regulatory process. Those are our primary responsibilities. We also work and help with the company’s leadership program and its relationships here in the United States with our customers, Congress, and with the media.

So as you personally downsize the responsibility from three jobs at BAE to one, how do you feel the “fit” is for you right now?

The fit is good. I think that since I’m the first chairman, or sole chairman, we’ve had to figure out how to do this. I really have to work very closely with the new CEO. Linda Hudson is great to work with. We also have a great team in place who work in a truly cooperative way to get things done well.

Right now, you’re part of what may be the most diverse defense conglomerate in history. I was looking back to see if there had ever been anything quite like it, and while there have been big defense consortiums, be it Krupp’s, General Dynamics in the ’80s, or Lockheed Martin today, I’ve never seen anything quite like BAE with the footprint it’s got right now. How do you balance those diverse product lines and then match it up to that international customer base that you serve?

We are truly a global company with a number of home markets as I said. We have to run on a strict set of processes and sets of standards due to the complexity of the business and its global footprint. It requires a strong company culture that is commonly understood and accepted throughout. We invest a lot in educating our employees in the requirements, and a lot in our leader development to ensure our standards are met.

A common corporate culture?

The corporate culture is critical. We have – the American company – 50,000 employees; we’re in 38 states and six countries. We need a common, bonding code and identity. Every component must be on the same set of procedures, processes, and set of company values. Same with our parent company that spans the globe with over 100,000 employees worldwide.

Let’s back away from the business side real quick and let’s talk about the BAE product line a bit. You don’t just do services. You make stuff.

Yeah, extraordinary stuff. I’m constantly dazzled by what they produce. We take pride in our innovation and technology.

If you were to sit down and look at some of the exciting potential game-changers you folks are doing, not just here in America but around the world, can you reel off a few things that you make that excite you?

Well, one was a few years ago, when the troops overseas faced the growing IED threat, and we were involved with the deployment of the protective systems like the MRAP, Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles. There was the need to produce them and get them out there right away and be effective. That, probably, in the past couple of years, has been our crowning achievement, that we’re able to get the product, get it into production, meet the requirements, get it out to the troops as quickly as possible. There are other things, like detection devices. We have a thermal imaging system called Check-6, that you put on the back of vehicles that can look to the rear. We’re also working with the troops on redesigning existing vehicles. For example, the troops were telling us that HMMWVs, with the doors opening the normal way [gestures with hands turning outward in same direction – like a conventional four-door sedan], need to open this way [gestures with hands turning apart in a “V” like a mid-1960s Lincoln Continental]. If the doors are armored when they step out, they have protection then.

So, we work with the troops. We bring a lot of troops back to get feedback on our products and get ideas, like that on the HMMWV redesign. We did the Bradley fighting vehicle upgrades, and initiated the idea that you can put hybrid-electric energy packs on armored vehicles and HMMWVs. That is just some of the work we do with hybrid vehicles, which are not only for military applications, but also commercial applications. We have the biggest hybrid-electric production capability for buses, with bus systems in western states using our hybrid technology to save a lot of fuel and energy.

I think our engineers are the heart and soul of what we do. We are a technology company. We might do a few other things out there, but basically it’s high technology. The frustrating thing about that sometimes is that’s not what the government wants, especially nowadays when the bucks are tight. You compete counting on quality, performance, and innovative technology getting major weight in decisions to acquire capabilities, but price often overrides.

In other words, I know you’ve got a son who’s a Marine in combat and that’s got to give you at least some perspective on what you’d like to give him to better ensure his chances for success and survival. In your own experiences and as an observer for almost five decades now, if you could send the warfighters out 10 and 20 years from now with things that you think they need, what would those be? What do you see in the future?

I want to see us give our troops the highest-quality capability, but I want to lighten the burden on our troops by reducing the load they must take into combat. We need rugged, reliable capabilities that retain the mobility our troops need. That is an infantryman speaking.

For centuries, there’s been the debate of “guns or butter.” Spending national treasury funds in development of new weapons and building up forces is never a popular thing. Where do you stand on defense investment, and what sort of policy do we need to develop to go ahead and do a better job of balancing the guns-and-butter debate?

Those decisions are based on the current environment. If security concerns are great, guns win out. If the economy is tight, it may be butter. Normally balance is sought, but you can’t afford everything so understanding risk and setting priorities is key.

It’s 2010. Tony Zinni is a Marine Corps elder statesman.

That’s another word for a has-been! [Laughs]

Today you’re a business executive in one of the most powerful business conglomerates in the history of the defense business. You’re an academic. You’re a best-selling author. Are you having fun, sir?

I’m content. The one thing that happens when you leave the military is that you sort of lose a sense of purpose, not that you don’t still have one. I love the other things that I do, but it isn’t quite the same as being a Marine. The idea that what you do day to day can be critical to our nation’s security, and the adventure, the sense of purpose that’s been there, it’s hard to find that if you’ve done that for 40 years somewhere else. That’s not to say that the things that I do aren’t really interesting, and I do find contentment in them. I don’t think I could have retired and done one thing. I still keep my hand in peace mediation work, because I find that fascinating. I love the students on the campuses. I’m on my ninth university academic chair now. I’ve had one every year since I’ve been retired. The business world, the writing, and all that, it’s all interesting. I think now I find my contentment more in doing a lot of different things as opposed to that single focus of a Marine. That sort of fills it up, along with seven grandkids, which makes me more happy than anything else.

This interview, published in four parts for the Web,  was first published in its entirety in The Year in Defense: Naval Edition for 2010.


John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...