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General Zinni gets undiplomatic treatment from Obama team

General Zinni gets undiplomatic treatment from Obama team

When retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni told the Washington Times that he was offered the job of U.S. ambassador to Iraq before being passed over in favor of diplomat Christopher Hill, he did not say that one of the outrages of the experience was that his friend of 30 years, fellow former Marine Corps commandant and now national security advisor James L. Jones, had offered him the job, and then failed to tell him when the decision was changed.

“Jones had called me before the inauguration and asked if I would be willing to serve as ambassador to Iraq or in one of the envoy jobs, on the Middle East peace process,” Zinni told Foreign Policy. “I said yes.”

“Then two weeks ago, Jones called,” Zinni continued, “and said, ‘We talked to the secretary of state, and everybody would like to offer you the Iraq job.’ I said yes.

“The [vice]* president called and congratulated me,” Zinni said.

Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked for a meeting last Monday night, Zinni said. He said he went to the meeting in her office at the State Department, where Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Williams Burns were also in attendance.

“She thanks me, asked me my views on Iraq,” Zinni recalled. “She said to Burns and Steinberg, ‘We’ve got to move quickly, Crocker is leaving, we’ve got to get someone in there and get the paperwork done and hearings… Lots to do to get ready to go.”

Zinni said he expected a call from Burns the next day. Not hearing from him, he called him.

“To make a long story short, I kept getting blown off all week,” Zinni said. “Meantime, I was rushing to put my personal things in order,” to get ready to go.

“Finally, nobody was telling me anything,” Zinni said. “I called Jones Monday several times. I finally got through late in evening. I asked Jones, ‘What’s going on?’ And Jones said, ‘We decided on Chris Hill.'”

“I said, ‘Really,'” Zinni recalled. “That was news to me.”

Jones asked him if he would like to be ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Zinni said. “I said, ‘You can stick that with whatever other offers,'” Zinni recalled, saying he had used more colorful language with Jones. Asked Jones’s response and if he was apologetic, Zinni said, “Jones was not too concerned. He laughed about it.”

Zinni said particularly galling is that had he not managed to get through to Jones on Monday night after repeated calls, he would have found out about the Chris Hill appointment in the Washington Post the next day with everybody else.

“You know, I would have appreciated if someone called me and said, ‘Minds were changed,'” Zinni said. “But not even to get a call. That’s what’s really embarrassing.”

Messages left for the NSC were not returned.

A former senior official familiar with the case said the matter appears to have been handled disastrously. However, he thought it might have been problematic for the Obama administration to name Zinni, a retired general, as Iraq ambassador, since they have also reportedly decided to name another general, Karl Eikenberry, as ambassador to Afghanistan.

“What if then the American government suddenly puts in both Afghanistan and Iraq both generals?” the former senior official said.

Secondly, the former senior official said, it might also have been problematic that until the end of 2008, Zinni had been executive vice president of defense contractor Dyncorp, which has hundreds of millions of dollars worth of business in Iraq. “If I was a responsible senator, I would scream about having the number two Dyncorp official” as ambassador to the country where it’s making so much money, the former official said.

Asked about that, Zinni said that he had done an assessment in Iraq for outgoing U.S. Amb. Ryan Crocker and Gen. Ray Odierno last fall, and no one had raised any issues about Dyncorp then. He said he left Dyncorp at the end of 2008 for unrelated reasons that did not have to do with a possible administration job, which he had not expected until he got the offer from Jones before the inauguration.

UPDATE
: A senior administration official said, “We have spoken to a number of extraordinarily talented individuals about serving in this important role, and have made no announcement about who will be the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq.  Obviously, the President has enormous respect for General Zinni and believes he would be on anybody’s short list for a number of critical national security roles.”

*Correction: Zinni says it was the vice president who called him, not the president. FP regrets the error.

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