The Cable

Zinni appointment screwup: What went wrong?

A day after retired Gen. Anthony Zinni publicly voiced his frustration at the handling of what he thought was an impending appointment to become the next U.S. ambassador to Iraq, several Democratic insiders close to the Obama foreign-policy team told The Cable that they consider the Zinni affair a case study in a troubled hiring ...

A day after retired Gen. Anthony Zinni publicly voiced his frustration at the handling of what he thought was an impending appointment to become the next U.S. ambassador to Iraq, several Democratic insiders close to the Obama foreign-policy team told The Cable that they consider the Zinni affair a case study in a troubled hiring system.

"The appointment process is a disaster," said a Washington Democratic foreign-policy hand. Zinni’s experience "is a reminder of how fragile the [new setup] is. There should be a level of anxiety that a senior public servant shouldn’t be treated this way."

"It’s a shame that this happened to General Zinni," said Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the National Security Network, a Democratic-leaning non-profit organization. "No one wants this to happen to him."

But what really happened to Zinni remains something of a mystery. In comments to The Cable Thursday, Zinni said that no one told him why he was offered and then rescinded the Iraq job. "I was never given a reason for the change," Zinni said.

"We are not talking about the personnel process," a White House official told The Cable. "General Zinni is a hero. And very talented. And we are eager to work with him."

There may indeed have been good reasons for the Obama administration not to have nominated Zinni. Sources outside of the administration suggested among them: the fact that it had reportedly chosen another general, Karl Eikenberry, to serve as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, and worries about the optics of putting too military a face on American foreign policy; pressure from the Foreign Service to give the prominent diplomatic post to someone from its ranks; and possible concern, given how several recent cabinet nominations have run into trouble, about Zinni’s previous role as a top executive with defense contractor Dyncorp, which does hundreds of millions of dollars worth of business in Iraq.

But if those concerns influenced the administration’s decision, it is not effectively making such a case.

Instead, General Zinni, who was angered enough by his experience to go public, has recounted his experience of being approached shortly before the inauguration about his willingness to take the Iraq ambassador or one of the Middle East envoy jobs by national security advisor James L. Jones, a fellow former Marine Corps commandant and his friend of 30 years. "To make a long story short," Zinni told The Cable Wednesday, "I kept getting blown off all week. Meantime, I was rushing to put my personal things in order."

"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.’"

In its brief comments on the matter, the Obama White House has sought to control damage from Zinni’s frank comments and smooth over any bruised feelings. ("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," a senior administration official said.) But it has offered very few explanations for its appointments process — seeking, it seems, to keep the national security decision-making process a mysterious black box.

Privately, a senior administration official asked for a bit of understanding for the trials of a new team still being built and put into place. But Zinni’s brusque treatment, which many others of lesser rank have described variations of and mostly kept anonymous, sheds some rare light into the somewhat secretive Obama national security structure and decision-making process.

"It’s also reflective of the larger problem," the Democratic foreign-policy hand said. "Number one, they are swamped with candidates. There are 20 candidates for every job. Everybody has friends who are promising things. And they have multiple power centers they have to negotiate. That gets ugly.

"[Former Council on Foreign Relations head] Les Gelb recently said, he has never seen an administration where political handlers veto so many things coming from below," the Democratic foreign-policy hand continued. "You cannot get a dogcatcher through without" it being vetted by political operatives. Obama political campaign guru David Axelrod was said to have vetoed some recent administration job offers.

Zinni’s treatment as he describes it suggests "this is really amateur hour and I can’t believe they would string out a respected individual like General Zinni in this fashion unless something dramatic happened late in the game," commented one Democratic Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer.

"That was incredibly unprofessional, and somebody just plain dropped the ball. They ended up making someone who should be a strong ally into someone now skeptical of their basic competence."

"What changed between last Monday, when HRC was ready to give him the post, and this Monday, when he was told it was a no go?" the staffer continued.  "The growing ethics controversies over both [deputy defense secretary nominee] Bill Lynn and [former HHS nominee] Tom Daschle. The administration made the calculation that it could not afford yet another ethics controversy, especially with so sensitive a position as the Iraq ambassadorship. … The Dyncorps connection is the key variable."

"Zinni is a very popular general," says one former Hill foreign-policy staffer. "And he was one of the first pro-Bush generals to turn on Bush. The Democratic party has been trying to recruit military leaders of varying levels to the party, to run for office, to help in the messaging and selling of the Democratic foreign policy agenda. And [in the Zinni case], it was blown by Jim Jones, and by Obama. The one that doesn’t take the blame on this is Hillary."

Asked if Democratic civilians hungry for credibility on security issues had been star-struck by the military credentials of the 6-foot-four inches tall, fluent-French-speaking Jones, AEI military analyst Tom Donnelly said, "Even if he’s really good, he’s got to manage an immense number of big egos, independent power bases, which have agendas of their own. Hillary got rolled. Where is the president on this?"

It’s important, Hurlburt argued, not to appoint a former general to the Iraq ambassador job in particular. "We are trying to signal to the Iraqis we are committed to removing combat troops and demilitarizing the [US-Iraq] relationship," Hurlburt said. And appointing career Foreign Service officer and veteran diplomat Chris Hill to the job "is also a great signal to the professional diplomatic corps, that the ultimate diplomatic job is being given to Hill, who has taken on some of the most thankless tasks" for the government, among them, most recently, as U.S. envoy to the six-party talks over North Korea’s nuclear program.

UPDATE: More today on the Zinni case from Politico‘s Ben Smith: "Yet on the lower levels of the transition, many among the army of Democratic foreign policy hands who labored for Obama’s campaign say they have heard little since election day." The New York Times gets Zinni too.

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