A team trouble-shooting effort

SUN JOURNAL

Envoys: The U.S. has two very different - but very capable - men concentrating on the Mideast peace process.

March 20, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Vice President Dick Cheney yesterday left the Middle East quieter than he found it. But the task of cementing a truce and finally halting 18 months of bloodshed depends in large part on the combined skills of two very different envoys who will stay behind.

Anthony C. Zinni, President Bush's Middle East troubleshooter, is a short, powerfully muscled Marine from a mill town outside Philadelphia who climbed the ranks from serving as a junior officer in the Vietnam War to command all U.S. forces from Kenya to Kazakhstan. He retired two years ago as a four-star general.

His subordinate, Aaron D. Miller, is tall and angular, a long-haired intellectual from a wealthy Cleveland suburb who has spent most of his career as a behind-the-scenes State Department civil servant wrestling with just one issue - the Arab-Israeli conflict.

But both men are problem solvers, fascinated by the Middle East and undaunted by the hatreds and fears that tear at the region. And both have a vision for the region that goes well beyond the nuts and bolts of a cease-fire.

Their first two missions, in December and January, ended in failure, and the current trip didn't hold out much hope either, at first. The past two weeks, however, have seen a major tactical shift by the Bush administration, which fears that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will complicate and undermine its larger aims of continuing the war on terror and toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Bringing public pressure to bear on Israel, President Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell persuaded Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government to pull its forces back from Palestinian-controlled areas, meeting a Palestinian condition for a cease-fire.

As chief of the U.S. Central Command from 1997 to 2000, Zinni, 58, became known for immersing himself in the cultures of Africa, the Arab world and Central Asia, all part of the vast Centcom region, as a way of gaining the confidence of leaders he dealt with.

He dined and fished with Persian Gulf princes and kept in touch with Gen. Pervez Musharraf even as Washington put its relationship with Pakistan on ice in the late 1990s. Musharraf is now president and a crucial ally in the war against terrorism.

Zinni, who serves as envoy on a part-time, unpaid basis, also is hard-nosed: "Don't make enemies, but if you do, don't treat them gently," is a favorite motto.

"He's well-known and respected in the Arab world," said Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, a longtime friend, which gives him leverage with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. At the same time, Armitage said, he's seen by Israelis "as a straightforward military man."

Zinni has tried studiously to come to grips with the personality of and pressures on Saddam Hussein, against whom he ran a four-day air campaign (Desert Fox) in 1998. His attempt to understand what drives allies and adversaries alike dates from his time in Vietnam, where he advised South Vietnamese Marines. And as he assumed ever-higher commands, this son of Italian immigrants kept the common touch.

"He was the kind of leader who could tell his troops, `I eat the same thing you do, get just as wet and go into just as much danger,'" says friend Jack Sheehan, another retired four-star Marine general.

Zinni's first Vietnam tour ended when he fell ill with malaria, hepatitis and mononucleosis. In his second, he was wounded.

He remains a stoic, according to Armitage, who described lifting weights alongside Zinni 10 years ago on a trip to Moscow.

"Tony is a very strong guy," he said, "but he struggled through the workout." Zinni kept silent on the reason - a broken elbow.

Deadly risk accompanied one of Zinni's last major military missions, in which he oversaw the extraction of United Nations forces from Somalia in early 1995 under fire from Somali snipers and rocket-propelled grenades.

After his own landing craft pulled out to sea, it caught fire and the engine stalled, causing the vessel to drift dangerously toward "a beach full of a lot of bad guys," he recalled later. He said he began to feel "a little queasy," but placed his fate confidently in the hands of the enlisted man who skippered the vessel.

"I knew that was the time for a general to be a good PFC [private first class]," he later said.

There will doubtless be times when Zinni defers to Miller, too.

At 53, Zinni's teammate has labored in the pressure-cooker of Middle East policy-making under six secretaries of state over two decades.

Miller's three books and numerous articles on the subject offer a glimpse of a storehouse of knowledge accumulated over years of study and negotiating. He is regarded as the department's near-indispensable institutional memory on the Arab-Israeli peace process. It's unlikely that either side will offer a plan or make an argument to Zinni that Miller hasn't heard before.

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