The Importance of Zinni

One of the most significant elements in Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech of Nov. 19 was the appointment of Anthony Zinni, the much-decorated and admired retired Marine Corps four-star general, as his Mideast envoy.

Zinni’s last post was as head of CENTCOM, the command that covers 25 countries, including the Persian Gulf, most of the Middle East (except Israel, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey), as well as Afghanistan and the Central Asian states of the former Soviet Union, including Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. During the Gulf War, he was in charge of installing the Patriots in Israel — a task for which he received special recognition from the Israeli military.

By becoming the first American Mideast envoy with a military background, Zinni has already made history. But there’s a lot more to him than Vietnam decorations and experience in such hot spots as Somalia and Pakistan. Exhibiting none of the standoffish bravado often associated with American military leaders, he’s as at home in the civilian world as in the military one.

Powell turned to Zinni because he has the specific personal traits — among them the ability to instill confidence and to listen to others’ views — that could lead to success in solving the world’s most difficult diplomatic problem.

Some say that because Zinni was assigned to CENTCOM in the late 1990s, when he built a reputation and many close contacts in the Arab and Muslim world, he won’t be able to understand Israel’s concerns.

Quite the contrary. I am certain that Prime Minister Sharon will find Zinni a kindred spirit, to whom he can relate as a fellow retired military officer. Zinni will certainly show a special understanding of the risks and horror of terrorism, because CENTCOM has seen more American lives lost to terrorism than any other command. Barracks in Lebanon, Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, the USS Cole in Yemen, and the U.S. Embassy in Kenya are more than enough to make a former CENTCOM commander understand the need for the Mideast to reach stability.

It will be very difficult for anyone to bring about a cease-fire between Israelis and Palestinians, but this is the clear and necessary first step in returning the peace process to the track set forth in the Mitchell and Tenet plans, which are widely recognized by all parties as the only current path back from the brink.

With Zinni’s appointment, another debate has apparently been resolved within the Bush administration: that any meaningful progress can only be achieved in the Mideast through more active American diplomatic engagement there. The region’s importance is too great, and the consequences of further escalation too frightening to contemplate, to simply leave the Israelis and Palestinians a phone number to call. The Bush administration has now acted, and it should be congratulated for doing so.

The administration is enjoying the overwhelming support of the American Jewish community in its prosecution of the war on terrorism. A majority in the Jewish community understand the relationship between the Arab-Israeli conflict and broader American national security concerns. Most American Jews also understand there is no contradiction between maintaining America’s special relationship with her only truly democratic ally in the region and simultaneously acting as a credible broker in pursuing an elusive peace.

Zinni may be one of the few people willing to volunteer his time and hard-earned reputation to accomplish that peace. He goes with the best wishes of the Jewish community and their hopes and aspirations for his success.