Nell Henderson Dives into the Tank for the Bush Administration
Angel Station: Them!

Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (Tom Ricks of the *Washington Post,* This Is Your Clippings File Talking Edition)

CORRECTION: I erred. This original post was wrong: in December 2003 Tom Ricks was not more interested in keeping open lines of communication to Paul Wolfowitz than informing his readers. He was, I would now argue, interested in informing his readers by striking a balance between two points of view: Wolfowitz's and Zinni's.

A senior reporter in Washington writes:


The attacks on Tom Ricks are so over the top, so beyond the pale, and so disproportionate that I've just got to offer this intervention.... [P]lease consider this a friendly effort to keep you from airing views that are, in my opinion, utterly misplaced.

It's particularly astonishing to me that Tom's piece on Wolfowitz is being savaged. Maybe if the story had run by itself, in isolation, it would be subject to legitimate criticism. But for cryin' out loud, it ran alongside an absolutely brilliant profile of Anthony Zinni--on the same day, on the same front page of Style. I don't know if you ever saw the hard copy version, but I vividly remember reading those two pieces, one after the other, as my cornflakes got soggy. The effect was galvanic. The opposing cases, pro-war and anti-war, were laid out by probably the most articulate advocates anyone could find anywhere for each side. And boy, did the arguments stick to your ribs, because they had been presented in such personal terms. I have rarely felt so in awe....

I certainly hope you won't dismiss this as just another example of "he said, she said" journalism. Yes, the pieces stopped well short of making explicit judgments; in his authorial voice Tom obviously refrained from calling either guy a liar or a charlatan. The reader was left to make up his or her mind. Still, it was great, memorable writing and reporting.... [B]oth of Tom's pieces were illuminating--one because it reinforced the opinion I already had, the other because it forced me to test my opinion against what seemed like the strongest case possible....

I just want to make sure that you and your readers know the full picture about Tom's Wolfowitz profile; to ignore the Zinni profile is to present his work in a ridiculously skewed fashion.


[M]y very strong recollection of Tom's Wolfowitz piece was that it was intended mainly as a counterpoint to the Zinni profile, not as a comprehensive look at Wolfowitz's history as a policymaker. That is, the reader was getting a chance to see a kind of debate between two extraordinarily articulate advocates, with one guy saying the war was justified and the other saying it was a disaster.... [T]he Wolfowitz profile, because it DID elevate a critic, to an equal level with a deputy defense secretary.[1]

I don't know if you or your readers were aware of the Zinni piece before--forgive me, I haven't read every single comment that's been posted. But I just saw red when I saw attacks like the one I just mentioned, because I have such vivid memories of those twin profiles being so wonderfully enlightening, juxtaposed as they were.... I hope that the Zinni profile either has gotten, or will get, some mention by you or others, because otherwise this criticism is simply taking Tom's work grossly out of context.

Good points, and entirely correct. I erred in simply grabbing the last thing about the administration Ricks wrote in 2003 and considering it in isolation. Ricks meant his Wolfowitz profile to be read not in isolation--in which case it looks like a hagiographic attempt to gain Wolfowitz point--but in point-counterpoint alongside the profile of Zinni that appeared indeed, alongside it. Dangers of being a bit too good at narrowly focusing archive searches.

My belief and accusation that Ricks was too interested in scoring Wolfowitz points in December 2003 to do his job properly was false. And I apologize.

[1] Here I disagree. Where my commentator sees Ricks as "elevat[ing] a critic," a private citizen, "to an equal level with a deputy defense secretary," I see Ricks as putting his thumb on the scales to preserve "balance" between Zinni and Wolfowitz by overlooking important facts that reveal Wolfowitz as the ideologically-blinded idiot he is. A reality-based, a fair and balanced profile of Wolfowitz as of December 2003 has to, has to talk about:

  • Wolfowitz's role in the "Team B" claims in the late 1970s that the rapidly-growing economy of the Soviet Union was supporting a military machine that threatened to greatly surpass that of the United States--claims that turned out to be false.
  • The strange "Wolfowitz Memorandum" of 1992, with its declaration that the United States needs to prevent any other power "from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to general global power.... We must maintain the mechanism for deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role."
  • Wolfowitz's advocacy in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 that the U.S. strike Iraq first--before the Taliban, or even Al Qaeda.
  • Wolfowitz's role in pushing the idea that Saddam Hussein was linked to 9/11.
  • Wolfowitz's role in pushing the idea that Saddam Hussein was a near-imminent threat to the United States
  • Wolfowitz's role in pushing the number of troops in the invasion of Iraq far below what the military planners desired.
  • Wolfowitz's role in pushing the idea that allies--especially Arabic-speaking allies who could provide lots of Arabic-speaking military police--were not needed.

Ricks's profile is much, much kinder and gentler to Wolfowitz than any reality-based profile has any business being. Ricks doesn't talk about Team B, or about Global Hegemony, or about the campaign--the successful campaign--to convince Americans that Saddam Hussein was linked to 9/11, or about the big problems with pre-war intelligence that were obvious by May of 2003 (some of my friends say by January of 2003, when the arms inspectors came up cold), or about Wolfowitz's role in turning 130,000 of the finest high-tech mechanized soldiers in the world into military police in a country where they don't speak their language, or about Wolfowitz's role in the anti-diplomacy effort that ensured that our "coalition" would lack Arabic-speaking military police.

[End of note 1]

Here's the original post:

It is recommended that one read Thomas Ricks's Fiasco with one's left eye while reading his 2003 Washington Post stories with one's right eye. I'm with Billmon on this. It's guaranteed to make one vomit.

Tom Ricks today, from Fiasco, p. 4:

How the U.S. government could launch a preemptive war based on false premises is the subject of the first, relatively short part of this book. Blame must lie foremost with President Bush himself, but his arrogance and incompetence are only part of the story. It takes more than one person to make a mess as big as Iraq. That is, Bush could only take such a careless action because of a series of systemic failures in the American system. Major lapses occurred within the national security bureaucracy, from a weak National Security Council (NSC) to an overweening Pentagon and a confused intelligence apparatus. Larger failures of oversight also occurred in the political system, most notably in Congress, and in the inability of the media to find and present alternative sources of information about Iraq and the threat that it did or didn't present to the United States.... The runup to the war... laid the shaky foundation for the derelict occupation that followed.... While the Bush administration--and especially Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and L. Paul Bremer III--bear much of the responsibility for the mishandling of the occupation in 2003 and early 2004...

And here we have Tom Ricks's last article about the Bush administration in 2003, a profile of Paul Wolfowitz that can only be called hagiographic:

Holding Their Ground: Holding Their Ground As Critics Zero In, Paul Wolfowitz Is Unflinching On Iraq Policy [FINAL Edition]. The Washington Post. Washington, D.C. Author: Thomas E. Ricks. Date: Dec 23, 2003. Start Page: C.01. Section:STYLE. Document Types:Feature. Text Word Count:2334. Copyright The Washington Post Company Dec 23, 2003:

In late September, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz appeared in Manhattan at an event sponsored by the New Yorker magazine. As he began to speak, he was interrupted by shouts of "War criminal!" and "Murderer!"

"I can't resist," he said evenly, surveying the audience. "This is what is wonderful about this country. It is -- " Another shout: "Shame on you."

Wolfowitz drove on: " -- and what is finally wonderful is 50 million, roughly 50 million Afghans and Iraqis, are finally able to speak this way without having their tongues cut out."

A few minutes later, a young man ran to the base of the stage, jabbed a finger at Wolfowitz and shouted: "You should be tried for treason, you Nazi!"

If Wolfowitz was jarred by the attack, he showed no sign of it. Rather, he looked a bit distant as he coolly responded: "Frankly, my own reading of history is that exactly this kind of tactic is what the Nazis did and what the totalitarians did in trying to stop people from listening and talking."

Saddam Hussein, he went on to say, was a malevolent dictator who clearly needed to be removed for the good of both the American and the Iraqi peoples. "I think anyone with the slightest bit of moral sense understood what an evil man Saddam was and how much better off the world would be with him gone." Later in the same session, he added, "To me, it's almost beyond argument."

No deputy secretary of defense has ever held the prominence that Wolfowitz has had over the last two years. He is widely seen inside the Pentagon as the most likely replacement if Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld steps down. And no figure in the administration, with the possible exception of Vice President Cheney, is as closely identified with the drive to invade Iraq and depose Hussein. "This is Wolfowitz's baby," said one person who has served as a senior official of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S.-led occupation power in Iraq. "He feels responsible for it."

To understand Paul Wolfowitz and the policies he advocates, notes a friend and former colleague, it is important to understand that Wolfowitz believes there is real evil in the world, and that he is confronting it. The lesson that Wolfowitz took away from the Cold War, says Eliot Cohen, who knew him at Johns Hopkins University, where Wolfowitz was a dean before moving to the Pentagon, is "that the world really is a dangerous place, and that you have to do something about it."

Paired with that is his belief that the United States can best respond to totalitarianism by emphasizing freedom and democracy. Wolfowitz possesses "a basic optimism about the potential of human beings for moderation and self-governance, and a belief in the universal appeal of liberty," Cohen says. That combination of a hardheaded view of some men with an idealistic faith in mankind, Cohen concludes, adds up to "a distinctively American take on the world."

So when Wolfowitz talks with great intensity about Iraq, it isn't just because his political future and his place in history are likely to be determined by the course of events there. He sees the U.S. invasion as part of a larger campaign against terrorism, and that post-Sept. 11, 2001, fight as the third great American struggle against totalitarianism, the new century's successor to the great fights against Nazism and Soviet communism. A recent conversation with him in his Pentagon office skipped among those three eras, moving from the Holocaust to the crimes of Hussein to the Cold War's Cuban missile crisis.

"The differences are as great as the similarities" in those three struggles, he says. But there is a basic similarity in that "we're dealing with a fundamental existential threat to our way of life, to our values."

The main parallel, he says, is "not so much in the nature of the enemy we're confronting as in the nature of the challenge it presents to us. That is, it really does require mobilization of a major effort on our part. It requires contemplating a long-term struggle."

This isn't just theorizing. Wolfowitz's own life runs through all three of those confrontations.

Though he didn't say so that day in New York when he was accused of being a Nazi, he lost most of his extended family in the Holocaust, with his line surviving because his father had emigrated from Poland in 1920 as a child. Wolfowitz, who just turned 60, shies away from discussing his family's losses. Asked about it, his response is seemingly off point. "The event that happened in my college years that had the biggest single impression on me, even more than Kennedy's assassination, was the Cuban missile crisis" -- that is, the prospect of nuclear holocaust. Pressed, he says, "It was a fairly poor family in Poland." Does he know how many relatives were lost, and where? "I really don't," he says. Some observers of Wolfowitz speculate that one lesson he took from the Holocaust is that the American people need to be pushed to do the right thing, because by the time they entered World War II, it was too late for millions of Jews and other victims of the Nazis.

Asked about this, Wolfowitz agrees but expands on the thought -- and connects it to Iraq. "I think the world in general has a tendency to say, if somebody evil like Saddam is killing his own people, 'That's too bad, but that's really not my business.' " That's dangerous, he continued, because Hussein was "in a class with very few others -- Stalin, Hitler, Kim Jong Il. . . . People of that order of evil . . . tend not to keep evil at home, they tend to export it in various ways and eventually it bites us."

During the concluding phases of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, under Presidents Carter, Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Wolfowitz served in a series of posts at the State Department and the Defense Department.

"We learned in the last century that democracies cannot live peacefully and undisturbed in a world where evil people control whole nations and seek to expand their bloody rule," he said in a speech last month. "We may have forgotten that lesson in the euphoria over the end of the Cold War." But, he added, we were reminded of that harsh lesson by Sept. 11.

Wolfowitz has been in the limelight in recent weeks because it was his signature on a controversial Pentagon document that barred companies from Russia, Canada, France and Germany from bidding on prime contracts for postwar reconstruction in Iraq. In the interview, he expresses some puzzlement about the splash that move made. "Why it struck people as news was a little bit of a mystery," he says. It was the right policy, he continues, and it wasn't intended to punish any countries but rather to reward more than just American companies. "By the way, it wasn't my decision," he adds, though he says he agrees with it. "This was an administration decision. . . . I was simply signing the implementing instruction."

The contract action does fit into his view of the Cold War. One of the lessons of that conflict, he wrote in an essay three years ago, was the necessity of "demonstrating that your friends will be protected and taken care of, that your enemies will be punished, and that those who refuse to support you will live to regret having done so."

That calculating approach surprises some who see him as an idealistic academic. Indeed, he is a second-generation Ivy League intellectual, a former Yale political scientist who is the son of a Cornell mathematician. "Wolfowitz comes across as smart, likable, well-meaning and deep," Wesleyan University Professor Phyllis Rose wrote with a touch of puzzlement in a recent issue of the American Scholar, the journal of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.

He can also mystify some of his colleagues in government. "A lot of us know him and like him as a person, but some of the policies he advocates are very difficult to understand or deal with," said a senior State Department official who had worked with Wolfowitz. "He's a man full of contradictions." But to Wolfowitz, there is no contradiction between calculated policies and idealistic goals. Rather, he contends, they can reinforce each other. Indeed, Wolfowitz is most confrontational when he is most idealistic.

Nowhere is that more evident than in his advocacy of transforming the politics of the Middle East, a policy that frequently is attacked as unrealistically idealistic. As he put it to the Jerusalem Post earlier this year, "The idea that we could live with another 20 years of stagnation in the Middle East that breeds this radicalism and breeds terrorism is, I think, just unacceptable."

Pentagon insiders say this vision of a democratic transformation of the troubled region is probably the biggest single area of discrepancy in policy views between Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld, who is said to doubt that such a sweeping change is possible. Asked whether there is daylight between him and his boss on this issue, Wolfowitz said, "Democracy in the Middle East is the president's policy, and we both support it enthusiastically."

Some see Wolfowitz's views on the Middle East as dangerously naive. "Wolfowitz doesn't know much about the business he's in," says retired Marine Gen. Joseph Hoar, a former chief of the Central Command, the U.S. military headquarters for the region. "He knows very little about war fighting. And he knows very little about the Middle East, aside from maybe Israel."

Likewise, the latest issue of Parameters, the official journal of the U.S. Army War College, carried some tart commentary aimed at Wolfowitz and his colleagues. Jeffrey Record, a former staffer for the Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote that "the Bush Administration, and more specifically the civilian leadership of the Pentagon, made faulty assumptions about postwar Iraq and failed to plan properly for Iraq's reconstruction." He particularly faulted "the 'liberation' scenario peddled by the Defense Department's neoconservative naifs."

Wolfowitz responds, "I think I know a lot about Islam, as a whole, and I know a lot about the Middle East. I've been following it for a very long time." He also notes that the experts frequently have been wrong about whether one Arab state would attack another, as Iraq did to Kuwait in 1990, or what the reaction of the "Arab street" would be to the U.S. invasion of Iraq this year.

But to Wolfowitz, trying to change the Middle East is far from unrealistic. Rather, it is using universal ideals to achieve the practical end of curtailing terrorism. Just as much of East Asia democratized in the 1980s and 1990s, so too is there a chance that the Middle East could change radically. "It could," he says. "And it's certainly worth a try."

"Change has to start someplace," he says. "The status quo . . . produced [Osama] bin Laden and produced thousands of people eager to kill themselves in order to kill Americans." Another charge, sometimes muttered in the military, is that Wolfowitz and his hawkish colleagues would act differently if they had ever been in combat. Retired Marine Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, for example, says that if Wolfowitz and others in the administration -- Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and their advisers -- had experienced combat as young men, they might have thought longer about invading and occupying Iraq. "I think it would have changed them," says Zinni, one of the more prominent critics of Bush administration policy in Iraq. "I just wish somebody in that chain of command would have seen combat at that time." He believes this is a moral issue. "They were my contemporaries. They should have been there, and they found a way not to serve. And where are their kids? Are their kids serving? My son is in the Marines."

Wolfowitz responds calmly to this charge. He notes that he has visited soldiers badly wounded in Iraq. "I am not at all unmindful of what it means to send American kids into combat," he says. "I go up to Walter Reed enough to see some of the consequences."

And he is careful not to be dismissive of his critics. "I think that those people who have experienced war have an even deeper distaste for it. And that is something I have a lot of respect for and a lot of time for."

But there are other considerations that must be kept in mind. And that takes him back to the Nazis. "Certainly the failure to confront Hitler was largely from fear of what the consequences would be, and that led to much greater consequences." Wolfowitz has shown physical courage on his two trips to Iraq, not only coming under rocket attack in his hotel in October, but also walking some streets and mixing with crowds.

But the specialty he has chosen is intellectual combat. In the campaign against terrorism, he said in a speech last month, "there is definitely an element of it that is in the realm of the battle of ideas, not just the battle of guns and bullets."

And so he charges into the fray. Appearing at Georgetown University in October, he stood on a stage and listened as a student denounced him. "I think I speak for many of us here when I say that your policies are deplorable," she said, standing at a floor microphone. "They're responsible for the deaths of innocents" -- here a wave of applause -- "and the disintegration of civil liberties."

When she finished, Wolfowitz calmly responded: "I have to infer from that you would be happier if Saddam Hussein were still in power." Here others in the audience cheered and clapped even louder. It was like watching a Parris Island drill instructor drop a recruit with a flick of his wrist.

The book is quite good, Mr. Ricks. But you are much too late to the party. And Paul Wolfowitz dismissing real concerns by accusing a student of being a Saddam-lover is not like "a Parris island drill instructor drop[ping] a recruit with a flick of his wrist." Not like that at all. It never was.

At the time, the profile probably seemed a reasonable thing to do--it got you lots of goodwill points from Paul Wolfowitz, didn't it, as well as some praise from your editors and from corporate, right?

But is it something you are proud of today?

Here's the Zinni piece:

For Vietnam Vet Anthony Zinni, Another War on Shaky Territory [FINAL Edition]. The Washington Post - Washington, D.C.. Author: Thomas E. Ricks. Date: Dec 23, 2003. Start Page: C.01. Section: STYLE. Document Types: Feature. Text Word Count: 2194. Copyright The Washington Post Company Dec 23, 2003

Anthony C. Zinni's opposition to U.S. policy on Iraq began on the monsoon-ridden afternoon of Nov. 3, 1970. He was lying on a Vietnamese mountainside west of Da Nang, three rounds from an AK-47 assault rifle in his side and back. He could feel his lifeblood seeping into the ground as he slipped in and out of consciousness.

He had plenty of time to think in the following months while recuperating in a military hospital in Hawaii. Among other things, he promised himself that, "If I'm ever in a position to say what I think is right, I will. . . . I don't care what happens to my career."

That time has arrived.

Over the past year, the retired Marine Corps general has become one of the most prominent opponents of Bush administration policy on Iraq, which he now fears is drifting toward disaster.

It is one of the more unusual political journeys to come out of the American experience with Iraq. Zinni still talks like an old- school Marine -- a big-shouldered, weight-lifting, working-class Philadelphian whose father emigrated from Italy's Abruzzi region, and who is fond of quoting the wisdom of his fictitious "Uncle Guido, the plumber." Yet he finds himself in the unaccustomed role of rallying the antiwar camp, attacking the policies of the president and commander in chief whom he had endorsed in the 2000 election. "Iraq is in serious danger of coming apart because of lack of planning, underestimating the task and buying into a flawed strategy," he says. "The longer we stubbornly resist admitting the mistakes and not altering our approach, the harder it will be to pull this chestnut out of the fire."

Three years ago, Zinni completed a tour as chief of the Central Command, the U.S. military headquarters for the Middle East, during which he oversaw enforcement of the two "no-fly" zones in Iraq and also conducted four days of punishing airstrikes against that country in 1998. He even served briefly as a special envoy to the Middle East, mainly as a favor to his old friend and comrade Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

Zinni long has worried that there are worse outcomes possible in Iraq than having Saddam Hussein in power -- such as eliminating him in such a way that Iraq will become a new haven for terrorism in the Middle East.

"I think a weakened, fragmented, chaotic Iraq, which could happen if this isn't done carefully, is more dangerous in the long run than a contained Saddam is now," he told reporters in 1998. "I don't think these questions have been thought through or answered." It was a warning for which Iraq hawks such as Paul D. Wolfowitz, then an academic and now the No. 2 official at the Pentagon, attacked him in print at the time.

Now, five years later, Zinni fears it is an outcome toward which U.S.-occupied Iraq may be drifting. Nor does he think the capture of Hussein is likely to make much difference, beyond boosting U.S. troop morale and providing closure for his victims. "Since we've failed thus far to capitalize" on opportunities in Iraq, he says, "I don't have confidence we will do it now. I believe the only way it will work now is for the Iraqis themselves to somehow take charge and turn things around. Our policy, strategy, tactics, et cetera, are still screwed up."

Anthony Zinni's passage from obedient general to outspoken opponent began in earnest in the unlikeliest of locations, the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. He was there in Nashville in August 2002 to receive the group's Dwight D. Eisenhower Distinguished Service Award, recognition for his 35 years in the Marine Corps.

Vice President Cheney was also there, delivering a speech on foreign policy. Sitting on the stage behind the vice president, Zinni grew increasingly puzzled. He had endorsed Bush and Cheney two years earlier, just after he retired from his last military post, as chief of the U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in Iraq.

"I think he ran on a moderate ticket, and that's my leaning -- I'm kind of a Lugar-Hagel-Powell guy," he says, listing three Republicans associated with centrist foreign policy positions.

He was alarmed that day to hear Cheney make the argument for attacking Iraq on grounds that Zinni found questionable at best:

"Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction," Cheney said. "There is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us."

Cheney's certitude bewildered Zinni. As chief of the Central Command, Zinni had been immersed in U.S. intelligence about Iraq. He was all too familiar with the intelligence analysts' doubts about Iraq's programs to acquire weapons of mass destruction, or WMD. "In my time at Centcom, I watched the intelligence, and never -- not once -- did it say, 'He has WMD.' "

Though retired for nearly two years, Zinni says, he remained current on the intelligence through his consulting with the CIA and the military. "I did consulting work for the agency, right up to the beginning of the war. I never saw anything. I'd say to analysts, 'Where's the threat?' " Their response, he recalls, was, "Silence."

Zinni's concern deepened as Cheney pressed on that day at the Opryland Hotel. "Time is not on our side," the vice president said. "The risks of inaction are far greater than the risks of action."

Zinni's conclusion as he slowly walked off the stage that day was that the Bush administration was determined to go to war. A moment later, he had another, equally chilling thought: "These guys don't understand what they are getting into."

This retired Marine commander is hardly a late-life convert to pacifism. "I'm not saying there aren't parts of the world that don't need their ass kicked," he says, sitting in a hotel lobby in Pentagon City, wearing an open-necked blue shirt. Even at the age of 60, he remains an avid weight-lifter and is still a solid, square- faced slab of a man. "Afghanistan was the right thing to do," he adds, referring to the U.S. invasion there in 2001 to oust the Taliban regime and its allies in the al Qaeda terrorist organization.

But he didn't see any need to invade Iraq. He didn't think Hussein was much of a worry anymore. "He was contained," he says. "It was a pain in the ass, but he was contained. He had a deteriorated military. He wasn't a threat to the region."

But didn't his old friend Colin Powell also describe Hussein as a threat? Zinni dismisses that. "He's trying to be the good soldier, and I respect him for that." Zinni no longer does any work for the State Department.

Zinni's concern deepened at a Senate hearing in February, just six weeks before the war began. As he awaited his turn to testify, he listened to Pentagon and State Department officials talk vaguely about the "uncertainties" of a postwar Iraq. He began to think they were doing the wrong thing the wrong way. "I was listening to the panel, and I realized, 'These guys don't have a clue.' "

That wasn't a casual judgment. Zinni had started thinking about how the United States might handle Iraq if Hussein's government collapsed after Operation Desert Fox, the four days of airstrikes that he oversaw in December 1998, in which he targeted presidential palaces, Baath Party headquarters, intelligence facilities, military command posts and barracks, and factories that might build missiles that could deliver weapons of mass destruction.

In the wake of those attacks on about 100 major targets, intelligence reports came in that Hussein's government had been shaken by the short campaign. "After the strike, we heard from countries with diplomatic missions in there [Baghdad] that the regime was paralyzed, and that there was a kind of defiance in the streets," he recalls.

So early in 1999 he ordered that plans be devised for the possibility of the U.S. military having to occupy Iraq. Under the code name "Desert Crossing," the resulting document called for a nationwide civilian occupation authority, with offices in each of Iraq's 18 provinces. That plan contrasts sharply, he notes, with the reality of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S. occupation power, which for months this year had almost no presence outside Baghdad -- an absence that some Army generals say has increased their burden in Iraq.

Listening to the administration officials testify that day, Zinni began to suspect that his careful plans had been disregarded. Concerned, he later called a general at Central Command's headquarters in Tampa and asked, "Are you guys looking at Desert Crossing?" The answer, he recalls, was, "What's that?" The more he listened to Wolfowitz and other administration officials talk about Iraq, the more Zinni became convinced that interventionist "neoconservative" ideologues were plunging the nation into a war in a part of the world they didn't understand. "The more I saw, the more I thought that this was the product of the neocons who didn't understand the region and were going to create havoc there. These were dilettantes from Washington think tanks who never had an idea that worked on the ground."

And the more he dwelled on this, the more he began to believe that U.S. soldiers would wind up paying for the mistakes of Washington policymakers. And that took him back to that bloody day in the sodden Que Son mountains in Vietnam.

Even now, decades later, Vietnam remains a painful subject for him. "I only went to the Wall once, and it was very difficult," he says, talking about his sole visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall. "I was walking down past the names of my men," he recalls. "My buddies, my troops -- just walking down that Wall was hard, and I couldn't go back."

Now he feels his nation -- and a new generation of his soldiers - - have been led down a similar path.

"Obviously there are differences" between Vietnam and Iraq, he says. "Every situation is unique." But in his bones, he feels the same chill. "It feels the same. I hear the same things -- about [administration charges about] not telling the good news, about cooking up a rationale for getting into the war." He sees both conflicts as beginning with deception by the U.S. government, drawing a parallel between how the Johnson administration handled the beginning of the Vietnam War and how the Bush administration touted the threat presented by Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. "I think the American people were conned into this," he says. Referring to the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, in which the Johnson administration claimed that U.S. Navy ships had been subjected to an unprovoked attack by North Vietnam, he says, "The Gulf of Tonkin and the case for WMD and terrorism is synonymous in my mind."

Likewise, he says, the goal of transforming the Middle East by imposing democracy by force reminds him of the "domino theory" in the 1960s that the United States had to win in Vietnam to prevent the rest of Southeast Asia from falling into communist hands.

And that brings him back to Wolfowitz and his neoconservative allies as the root of the problem. "I don't know where the neocons came from -- that wasn't the platform they ran on," he says. "Somehow, the neocons captured the president. They captured the vice president."

He is especially irked that, as he sees it, no senior officials have taken responsibility for their incorrect assessment of the threat posed by Iraq. "What I don't understand is that the bill of goods the neocons sold him has been proven false, yet heads haven't rolled," he says. "Where is the accountability? I think some fairly senior people at the Pentagon ought to go." Who? "That's up to the president."

Zinni has picked his shots carefully -- a speech here, a "Nightline" segment or interview there. "My contemporaries, our feelings and sensitivities were forged on the battlefields of Vietnam, where we heard the garbage and the lies, and we saw the sacrifice," he said at a talk to hundreds of Marine and Navy officers and others at a Crystal City hotel ballroom in September. "I ask you, is it happening again?" The speech, part of a forum sponsored by the U.S. Naval Institute and the Marine Corps Association, received prolonged applause, with many officers standing.

Zinni says that he hasn't received a single negative response from military people about the stance he has taken. "I was surprised by the number of uniformed guys, all ranks, who said, 'You're speaking for us. Keep on keeping on.' "

Even home in Williamsburg, he has been surprised at the reaction. "I mean, I live in a very conservative Republican community, and people were saying, 'You're right.' "

But Zinni vows that he has learned a lesson. Reminded that he endorsed Bush in 2000, he says, "I'm not going to do anything political again -- ever. I made that mistake one time."

Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this article.