American Military Leadership in the Middle East

Wednesday, February 28, 2024
Amir Cohen/REUTERS

Partner, KKR and Chairman of the KKR Global Institute; Former Commander, United States Central Command (200810); Author, Conflict: The Evolution of Warfare from 1945 to Ukraine

Former Commander, United States Central Command (19972000) 


Associate Editor and Senior National Security Correspondent, Washington Post; CFR Member

Former CENTCOM Commanders David Petraeus and Anthony Zinni discuss the military aspect of the Israel-Hamas war and lessons learned from U.S. involvement and operations in the Middle East.

DEYOUNG: Thank you. Hello and welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting on “American Military Leadership in the Middle East.” I’m Karen DeYoung, associate editor and senior national security correspondent at the Washington Post. And I will be your presider today. We have nearly six hundred Council members registered for today’s on-the-record meeting. And I think that reflects the interest in what our two distinguished speakers have to say on this very important and very current subject.

Retired four-star generals Anthony Zinni and David Petraeus have both served as commander in chief of the U.S. Central Command, in charge of U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, as well as undertaking high-level missions in and affecting the region since leaving office. I know that members have biographies of both, but I think it’s especially pertinent to our discussions today to note that Marine General Zinni he served in a number of diplomatic roles, including as special diplomatic envoy under both Republican and Democratic administrations to Israel and the Palestinian Authority and to the Persian Gulf. Bracketing his time as CENTCOM commander, Army General Petraeus served as commander of U.S. and multinational forces in Iraq and in Afghanistan, where he put into practice the Army Field Manual for Counterinsurgency Operations that he was so instrumental in producing. In 2011, President Obama nominated him as director of the CIA, and he was unanimously approved by the Senate.

Today is the one hundred forty-fourth day of the Israel-Hamas war. Following the October 7 Hamas attacks from Gaza into southern Israel, where about 1,200 Israelis were killed and more than 250 taken hostage, Israel has conducted a relentless air, ground, and sea attack on Gaza. Israel said its goal is to destroy Hamas and to return all of the hostages. In the process, its attacks have killed nearly 30,000 Gazans, according to local health authorities most of them civilians. More than a hundred hostages remain captive, including six American citizens. Israel’s been charged with violating international humanitarian law, and support for its efforts have left the United States increasingly isolated on the global stage, and in a tough political spot at home.

I think there are a lot of questions that arise from that pretty brief synopsis, but I’d like to start just by asking each of you, based on your experience with counterinsurgency in the Middle East and in Israel in particular, to assess the state of the Israeli military campaign so far and what’s happening there. General Petraeus, you want to kick us off?

PETRAEUS: Sure. I will. And great to see you again, Karen. It’s been a little while, but your coverage of this region was always stellar. And it’s great to be back with you and, of course, an honor to be with General Zinni as well.

First of all, there’s one additional objective in addition to destroying Hamas and rescuing the hostages, getting them back, is also to dismantle the political wing of Hamas and not to allow it to oversee the territory again. I tend to agree with these objectives. I see Hamas as similar to the Islamic State. Yes, it’s an imperfect analogy. There’s a Palestinian nationalism element to this, without question. But I see it that they are irreconcilable. This is an Islamist extremist group. Again, that cannot be reconciled, by and large—perhaps some small numbers can—but by and large this is a group that does need to be destroyed.

And keep in mind, the military definition of destruction is not every last one of them. It is to render the enemy incapable of accomplishing his mission without reconstitution. Keep your eye on “without reconstitution,” because one of the additional areas of focus that I’m going to discuss is the need to prevent reconstitution. And you don’t see that yet, in part because the campaign design is actually a bit more of a conventional military campaign, even though it’s a war among the people, than it is a counterinsurgency campaign. And as you’ll recall from our many briefings together, the three components of counterinsurgency, a civil-military campaign, are: clear, hold, and build.

I also don’t want to overlook the fact of how traumatic the loss of 1,200 Israelis and others was. If you put that in U.S. terms, that’s the equivalent of 42,000 Americans having been killed, keeping in mind that it was not quite 3,000 in the attacks on 9/11. And then the hostages would equate to about 7,000. So this is a really truly traumatic event that I don’t think people can really appreciate unless you try to put it into terminology associated with our size of population, and compare it, indeed, to 9/11.

The campaign so far, they have largely destroyed Hamas in northern Gaza. But we are already seeing efforts to reconstitute there. We’re seeing a good degree of success, again, in terms of destroying Hamas in the central part of Gaza, but still relatively early days despite operations in Khan Yunis in the south, and particularly noting that there’s such a huge number of people down there that’s been displaced, around Rafah in particular, that that is going to be particularly challenging. In fact, you know, the book that I just did with Andrew Roberts, Conflict, since 1945 to Ukraine, we believe that this is the most fiendishly difficult context in that entire period, since World War II. Very challenging enemy—doesn’t wear a uniform; uses civilians as human shields; has over 350 miles of subterranean, very highly developed, tunnel systems, and other infrastructure underground; has hostages; and knows the neighborhood. And the dense population is very, very significant.

So the challenge here is enormous. But the additional components required for a true civil-military counterinsurgency campaign include a vision for the people of Gaza, for the Palestinians. That life will be better. This is what we sought to do before we went into Ramadi, Fallujah, Baqubah, Mosul, city of two million people, parts of Baghdad. As you’ll recall, we said we’re going to make your lives better. Here’s how we’re going to do it. We’re going to get the enemy out of your midst. We’re going to separate the extremist from you. We’re going to secure you.

And you have to—that hold plan. Literally we would design neighborhoods within a place like Fallujah with entry control points, biometric ID cards, so you can keep Hamas from getting back into the people causing problems and reconstituting. And, of course, restoring basic services, providing humanitarian assistance, keeping loss of innocent civilian life to an absolute minimum. Because, of course, if you don’t, you’re developing the next generation of extremists. And I share the concerns of the president and others who have highlighted the innocent loss, as you just mentioned as well, and the need for additional humanitarian assistance. But it’s really about a long-term vision for the Palestinians that they are going to make their lives better, not just take vengeance, of course, on Hamas.

And those additional components—we used to have a sign on the walls of the—you know, I had five combat commands as a general officer. And there was a sign staring me in the face in the operation center that asked a question: Will this operation take more bad guys off the street than it creates by its conduct? And you’ve got to be very, very conscious of that. I think we are seeing signs of much greater recognition of the need for these components—the hold phase in particular. Not just clear and move on, but clear, and hold. And I hope that we’re going to see the build phase commence very soon as well, because you need to get the people back into their homes, secure them, repair all the damage that has been done. And it is obviously very substantial. Get the hospitals working again so that you can take care of those that are injured or wounded, and so on. And, again, a very significant commitment to keeping minimum—to a minimum innocent loss of civilian life.

So that’s how I sort of assessed this right now. Again, agree with the objectives, actually. But have got to examine the campaign design so that they can achieve the end state which includes preventing Hamas from reconstituting and also, again, from sowing the seeds of Hamas 2.0. Over.

DEYOUNG: General Zinni.

ZINNI: Yes. Well, first of all, I certainly agree with General Petraeus regarding Hamas. In my time there, as I was negotiating with the Palestinian Authority, Hamas continued and kept raising the level of violence, until the talks broke down. And unfortunately, we were very close to an agreement on security. And Hamas was not interested in peace negotiations or peace agreements, and obviously was not represented at the table. I think also General Petraeus makes an excellent point about the operation. If we’re not—if not being careful, and I think may have already started, generating Hamas 2.0, the next generation. We have a lot of preteen and teenage kids who’ve watched their families killed or destroyed, their homes destroyed. And where does that population turn? So in regards to what comes after this, first of all, we’re going to deal with a tremendous humanitarian problem. That’s going to take a lot to fix and to get the Gazans back on their feet in many different ways. We are in danger of a wider, I think, regional violent uprising in places like Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere.

I also think that we have to look at who’s going to represent the Palestinians after this. The Palestinian Authority does not have credibility. We just saw elements of their government resign. They are not trusted. They were not popular amongst the people. Hamas now I think will find a mixed reaction. Some will be so angered that they’ll want to, as I said before, create 2.0 Hamas, next generation. Others may resent what Hamas brought them. But somehow, working with our friends in the region, we have got to help the Palestinians reconstruct some sort of representative government that people accept and we would be able to deal with going forward in any kind of a structuring of a potential Palestinian state or a self-determining entity.

We have to remember—and, again, going back to General Petraeus. He phrased it differently than I would. I’m an old counterinsurgency guy. I taught it in the ’60s. And we always said there were three elements. One was environmental improvement. One was, obviously, fighting the insurgent. And third was population and resources, protection and control. We saw what happened when the people and the resources weren’t protected. We obviously see the fighting going on now to try to use the military as an ultimate solution. I think that’s only part of it. We have to change the environment. Unless the status of the Palestinians is changed, we’re going to see this movie again in seventy years. And we have to get serious about a mediation effort that resolves the final status issues. And, again, General Petraeus said this is the most complex situation that you could find. I personally felt there were about ten or eleven final status issues. Each one of them are very, very difficult to address and to hopefully look at a solution.

I don’t think it’s going to be left to the United States, or to Israel and the Palestinians. We’re going to have to involve those in the region. I would love to see the Arab League, or some other organization help us with the Palestinian side and join us. We’ve never had that element at the table. I think we’re in danger of losing any ground we gained with the Abraham Accords. I think there was warning from especially the UAE that unless the Palestinian issue was addressed, the Abraham Accords will not stick. It was prophetic, you know, in what happened. So I think, you know, we have to deal with the long-term future, and how we repair this, as well as the short-term requirements, both of which are going to be monumental. Thank you.

DEYOUNG: Can I—you know, General Austin went to Tel Aviv shortly after the war started. And we’ve been told by the Pentagon and by other top officials in the Biden administration that the administration has been sharing lessons with Israel about what we learned from close-quarter urban warfare counterinsurgency. And I think both of you have talked about what some of those lessons are. But I wonder if the Israelis are actually listening to those lessons. You know, we talk about human shields, but here you have—and Hamas, you know, hiding behind civilians. And that’s certainly the case. But here you have one of the most, if not the most, densely populated place in the entire world. It’s very hard to stand anywhere in Gaza where you’re not standing next to or in front of somebody who reasonably could be affiliated with Hamas.

And so I wonder, the way the war is being prosecuted now with this relentless bombing, attacking hospitals, really putting pretty strict limits on humanitarian assistance—I think that I was reading some of the statistics this morning that even as we hear terrible stories about famine and malnutrition and lack of medical care, that in fact the amount of humanitarian assistance going in now is about half of what it was in January. And so, do you see—is there a way out of this for Israel at this point if they continue? How could they alter their current tactics to avoid some of these problems, whether it’s the humanitarian crisis, you know, creating new members of Hamas?

And when you talk about—I’ll just shove all these questions in here—when you talk about, General Petraeus, the need to give a vision for the future and how you’re going to make the Palestinian lives better, you know, you’ve got an Israeli government that that basically has said: We are going to continue the occupation. We are going to continue to surround your borders and control your movements. We are going to continue to manage security. And so how—again, I get to, how do you get out of this unless there’s some drastic change that I don’t see in the cards in terms of either side?

PETRAEUS: Yeah. First of all, keep in mind that it took us several years in Iraq to figure out how to do this. You know, Fallujah we did three times before we actually got it right. Ramadi and others, all of these, it took sitting down back in the United States—and I was privileged to largely lead this effort together with Jim Mattis, by the way. We were allies on this effort for our ground forces, to distill the lessons that we had learned so far to produce a field manual that actually captured all of those lessons. And this took us experience, and time, and everything else. And it’s a professional force of long service, as opposed to essentially a conscript force. The IDF is a spectacular organization but, we forget, they have never done this before.

There’s no recent operation remotely like this. They have in the past done forays into Gaza—essentially, punitive forays—and then pulled back out. Same in southern Lebanon. You’d have to go all the way back several decades to the operation into the southern Lebanon. And that really wasn’t, again, this kind of campaign that I’m describing, which is a comprehensive civil-military counterinsurgency campaign, with all different aspects of it. Not just the military clearing operations to destroy the enemy, but then the hold phase. And the hold phase it gets at what you’re talking about.

It should consist of immediately huge amounts of humanitarian assistance. Get people back into their homes, no matter what they’re like. Rebuild them as quickly as you can. Restore basic services. Get schools, markets, clinics, roads, bridges, all of that repaired as quickly as you can. We would do it as we were going along. But again, it took us several years. It wasn’t until 2007 that we actually carried out what I would describe as textbook counterinsurgency operations in an urban setting. And none of them were as challenging as this one is. They were plenty challenging. Don’t get me wrong. But nothing like what Israel faces.

And yet Israel—and we had to change the entire road to deployment. We had to change all of our courses for commissioned and noncommissioned warrant officers, the original seminar for a unit, the mission rehearsal exercise out in the Mojave Desert. All of these have to be done. And it took us years to do that. And they’re trying to do this on the fly without some important components of this, including, again, the explicit commitment that life is going to be better. And here’s how we’re roughly going to do it—roughly. And, as you note, again, if there is not that kind of commitment—and, of course, we know that domestic politics of Israel are particularly challenging in the coalition, then it is very difficult to develop all the dimensions and all the components of what should be a comprehensive civil-military counterinsurgency campaign, rather than a conventional military campaign.

They are listening. I have had personal experience. They’re trying to work through in this setting how to do this. I think there’s actually a very significant commitment to reducing civilian casualties, much less use of large munitions in urban areas. But again, let’s keep—reopen Al-Shifa Hospital. Let’s make it look what right looks like, and show them that commitment, again, to the civilians. That kind of activity. But, again, this sounds really easy. It is fiendishly difficult in this particular setting. Keep in mind, one thing we have not yet seen is a lot of suicide bombers. But there’s—there may well come a point where they face that particular pernicious threat as well. And that changes the entire context in which you’re operating. So it’s very, very hard.

DEYOUNG: Let me ask you, General Zinni, you’ve dealt—you had a time of—not only in Central Command, but as a diplomatic envoy dealing directly on a day-to-day basis with the Israeli government, and with the Palestinians. That was during the time of Ariel Sharon’s prime ministership. Not an easy guy to deal with. Do you think the Israelis are listening? Do you think that there’s room in the way that they’ve set out their campaign for them to do some of these things now to gain some kind of trust from the Palestinian population? And particularly looking at what they’ve said their plans are for the future, which don’t necessarily coincide with the Biden administration’s plans, is there—what direction do they go in now? And is it possible?

ZINNI: I think, you know, first of all, we shouldn’t say “the Israelis,” because there are those Israeli that obviously want to see as a long-term solution, a strategic solution, are agreeable to some sort of self-determination by the Palestinians. There are others that are hardliners that will never agree. And the same on the other side. So you have this mixed bag. I think there has to be—all the—all the things that General Petraeus mentioned have to be done, obviously, in the short term. We have to reconstruct the society. We have to build some of the institutions back. But something longer term has to be put in place.

I think our approach to trying to mediate toward a longer-term solution, let’s say a two-state solution, whatever that means, has not—has not been done in a meaningful way. We’ve had a lot of well-meaning people, but we do touch and goes on that process. We send out envoys, we—you know, and I was one of them. We send out representatives in the short term. The dialogue breaks down. We go home. Somebody else comes back in the next administration. We need to establish a long term, multinational if you will—that’s why I’ve mentioned before the Arab League ought to be involved, and others—mediation process. And a process to bring this to a point where there is some sort of self-determination for the Palestinian people that would convince them to reject Hamas, that would convince them to seek a better alternative than maybe the Palestinian Authority, more representative to their needs.

You can’t—you can’t—as Dave Petraeus once told me, you can’t shoot your way to victory here. All the things he mentioned about the military are right on. And it’s all the great things that we could do. In the longer term, we need a dedicated commitment with the same kind of commitment that he mentioned that the military provides, not only by our own government and the other agencies of government but by the international community. That’s the only way you’re going to get this done. It’ll be a roller coaster ride. There’ll be ups and downs. There’ll be violence. But you have to stick to it until you get there.

As I look at the demographics, roughly the number of Palestinians, both in Israel and the Palestinian territories, and the number of Israelis—Jewish Israelis are about the same. So somewhere along the line, the occupation won’t work. The shrinking of the of the area, continuously taking more land and pressuring the Palestinians, and—that won’t work. That you will—we will see explosions like this, and as horrific as October 7 was. So we’ve got to go—we’ve got to at the same time, in parallel with the things General Petraeus mentioned, we’ve got to give them hope. And you give them hope by some established, enduring, long-term process. Not these little short-term accords, and go to Oslo, go to Paris, and all this. It’s got to be on the ground. And it’s got to be long term.

DEYOUNG: I think that the—you know, I think the Arab League is involved, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. But what they’ve said is there’s not going to be a long-term solution until the occupation ends and until Israel agrees to a Palestinian state. I mean, that is the long-term policy of the United States. The argument of some of the Arab states at least, I think most of them, is that: United States, you’re the one that has the leverage here. Israel has said it is not going to have either of those things. Is it time for the United States to start using more leverage? Or is that really just untenable when you’re dealing with this kind of terrorism?

ZINNI: You know, the myth—the myth is that the United States can wave a wand and force Israel or force the Palestinians to get—to get things done. I don’t believe that. I think we are necessary to a process. I would like to see more involvement by others. I mentioned the Arab League. The Arab League, as you said, is involved. But I’d like to see them involved in the reconstruction of a Palestinian Authority that’s responsive to the people, where they would have the greatest influence and the greatest trust. The United States is not necessarily trusted on either side. I mean, Netanyahu hasn’t responded to—you know, maybe he’s waiting out the next election, hope it gets better. On the Palestinian side, there hasn’t been that trust.

So, you know, with my time out there we had the Quartet, which made no sense to me. The EU, the Russians, and the U.N. We’ve got to form a better international organization. We could—and that organization could offer incentives for moving the process along. You’re going to have to deal with issues like right of return, status of Jerusalem, water rights, all that. There’s about a dozen of them. And some of these may not be resolved to the liking of either side. But maybe the incentives in building institutions, in reparations—and they can come from outside—there could be formulas that are used to resolve some of these issues and put them in place. But no one is collectively, I think, looking at each one of these. Everybody runs off to a short summit somewhere in the world, throws all these issues on the table, and thinks you’re going to resolve them in two weeks. It won’t work that way.

DEYOUNG: Do you think, General Petraeus, should the United States be willing to use its—the leverage—the actual, physical, concrete leverage that it does have in terms of military assistance to Israel?

PETRAEUS: I think it’s a really difficult question, Karen. Again, we are committed to their security. They have sustained a traumatic experience. I tried to lay out just how—put it in context that we would understand. I still don’t think we can. I’ve talked to a lot of people that have been—and I head out there next week, as a matter of fact. And I don’t think we fully appreciate how extraordinary an event this has been. This is their worst day in history. And so the idea that we’re going to lean on them, I don’t see that necessarily/ Certainly, there is lots of conversation. There was use of leverage in restricting the sale of certain rifles that were going to end up in the settlements in the West Bank, as you may recall. There will be discrete actions like that. There will be a lot of conversations about, again, the tactics, techniques, and procedures of what they’re conducting, the campaign design, how to minimize loss of innocent civilian life, and so forth. But I think it’s unlikely that you’re going to see, you know, the real leverage.

And I think General Zinni is right. You know, we sometimes, I think, overestimate the leverage. And especially in a situation like this, where this is a life and death matter for them. And the prime minister is in obviously a very challenged political situation as well. And, again, I just—I find it somewhat unlikely. We’re going to take various action, but there’s not going to be the kind of real, real stiff exercise of leverage, I don’t think. And I’m not sure I would agree with it, frankly.

Let me add one other concern, though. And that is really tied to General Zinni’s comment, of course, that the Palestinian Authority itself has real challenges when it comes to legitimacy, efficiency, integrity, et cetera. And that creates a huge problem when it comes to who is going to administer Gaza. And I don’t see an alternative, actually, in the short term at least, to Israel having to administer Gaza. Now they can get local partners. There’s a variety of ways. You’ve got to bring back some of the elements that used to be in fact paid by Hamas but are not part of the Hamas military wing and weren’t in the senior political wing.

But there’s no government in a box sitting in the West Bank that is trustworthy, competent, and capable, prepared to deploy orders, ready to go over into Gaza and take over. And that creates another real challenge. So I think inevitably Israel’s going to end up owning Gaza. But they have to be really careful about how they do that and the vision that they provide about the temporary nature of this, what the ultimate goal is, and so forth. But we have not yet seen the commitment to that ultimate goal that General Zinni was highlighting, which is the path out of this, however extraordinarily challenging that is to pursue.

DEYOUNG: Well, of course, the—you know, the U.S. plan is that you have a reconstructed Palestinian Authority. And you saw the—you saw President Abbas essentially fire his government this week, or last week, whenever it was. I think it was this week. You know, and there are all kinds of suggestions about technocrats who are going to take over. Do you think that’s going to work, General Zinni?

ZINNI: Well, first of all, you have to remember, Gaza threw out the Palestinian Authority and voted in Hamas. So a return to the Palestinian Authority—

PETRAEUS: After we insisted on elections, of course.

ZINNI: Yes. (Laughs.) Good point. So any reconstructed Palestinian Authority is going to be viewed with the greatest suspicion and have a difficult time. It has to have representation from within Gaza, definitely. I would not give it the same title. You know, I’m of the belief that you probably need to rename and restructure a Palestinian governance institution of some sort from the bottom up, involve some of the younger generation. There are a lot of people that are long in the tooth out there that aren’t trusted on the ground. Some of this stuff has to be, I think, fairly drastic to get the attention to the people and the willingness for them to do the kinds of things you expect in the insurgency, to throw out the likes of Hamas and other things.

And have a belief and a sense of hope in what you’re offering them. As General Petraeus said, it’s going to be a long, tough slog. But they have to be able to see some light at the end of that tunnel or some hope that they’re going somewhere. Just fixing things or returning them back to what they were, or reconstructing, you know, hospitals and things like that—which has to be done, don’t get me wrong—that will not be enough. You’ll go back to the same kinds of—it’s the most crowded place on Earth. They don’t have freedom of travel, lack of opportunity for their young people, an oppressive occupation. All these things mount up. And after all the casualties they just suffered now, I’m afraid that on both sides there’s going to be a lot of resentment and hate still left in the guts.

PETRAEUS: And if I could just build on that. You know, there’s got to be a real commitment to building institutional capacity that can actually do what General Zinni’s talking about. And also, to the economy, to the infrastructure, to the education system which needs to be overhauled, to eliminating pay for slay, this incentivization of violence and so forth. And then also, a commitment to, at the very least, don’t create additional obstacles to what presumably would be the rough idea of two states for two people.

DEYOUNG: Let’s go to our members and invite them to join the conversation.

OPERATOR: Thank you so much.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

We will take our first question from Aaron David Miller. Please remember to unmute yourself and state your name and affiliation.

Q: Hey, yeah. Aaron, David Miller, Carnegie Endowment. General Petraeus, great to see you. General Zinni, twenty-two years ago this month, you will recall. And, Karen, it’s great to see you.

I just want to press on both of your experiences on the military side. There are no rewind buttons on history. And General Petraeus said this was Israel’s 9/11. It was, in many respects, but—


Q: We didn’t have a proximity problem with al-Qaida or the Islamic State. So the Israelis have a different order of magnitude. But I’m just curious, if—and I know it’s hard to answer this—but was there an alternative, in your view, in the wake of the October 7 terror surge. given the political circumstances, the trauma, and the proximity problem, do you believe there was a fundamentally different approach the Israelis might have taken in the last five, six months?

PETRAEUS: I’ll start quickly, and then tag-team to General Zinni. But, Aaron, first of all, just congratulations on your latest scholarship. By the way, I’ve been an avid listener of the podcast of your reflections on the peace process, and how you played a role in all of that. Really, truly, I think the best scholar and practitioner on all of this across the sweep of time on this.

Look, I think that they did have to destroy Hamas. That is the challenge here. And I know there are people that believe that Hamas is reconcilable. That’s where I just don’t—I don’t share that (hope with ?). General Zinni’s dealt with. Al-Qaida in Iraq, later the Islamic State, these are not reconcilable. In Iraq, we actually determined who are—we had a huge, elaborate intelligence process to determine who was reconcilable, and we reconciled with them—103,000 former Sunni insurgents and Shia militia in the surge in Iraq alone. But that did not include the irreconcilable elements, again, of al-Qaida in Iraq in particular, then the major Sunni insurgent leaders, and similarly with the Shia militias supported by Iran.

In this case, you have a terrorist army. It’s quite large. It is completely extremist. And it has to be destroyed. Now, again, keep in mind, destruction doesn’t mean every last one of them. It means to render them incapable of accomplishing their mission without reconstitution. And so, if you agree with that—and I agree that this can be debated—but given the trauma that they went through, I don’t know how you couldn’t default. This has to be the conclusion. Look what we just went through. Can we do anything less than seek the destruction of this entity, prevent it from ever governing the territory again, and, obviously, get the hostages back?

The decision that is something you might—will be relooked is how you go about doing that. What is the campaign design? How quickly do you start the hold phase and the rebuilding? Can you find mechanisms to keep the hospitals open, get more humanitarian—you know, all these kinds of issues, I think, Aaron, are these are ones that you can examine. But now we are where we are. And I think what you have to do at this juncture is, going forward, take the lessons learned. And they’re learning as they go, again, in a very, very—the toughest imaginable context, to add the components that General Zinni and I have described. Over.

DEYOUNG: Well, are they learning? I mean, what’s the evidence that they’re learning? The bombing has not diminished.

PETRAEUS: Well, I think it has, actually. I think there’s considerably less use of the huge bunker busters and these kinds of munitions. Again, I think there actually is a considerable shift in that regard. We’ll see when they go into Rafah, which is going to be particularly challenging, and how they’re able to separate the people from Hamas. But, General.

ZINNI: Yeah, if I could add one thing to what General Petraeus said. And, first of all, I’m forever in debt to Aaron. He was my brain out there for a year and a half.

I think that when you we talk about the destruction of Hamas, there’s another element that we should emphasize. Young people that join Hamas out of desperation or out of frustration, we have to think about ways we can wean them away, convince mothers that your son—there’s a—there’s another opportunity. That’s not the only path toward resolving your issues. So it’s not just a matter of killing, as General Petraeus said, every single one of them. You have to give them an alternative to express their grievances, to have hope, and to be able to think about a different kind of future.

I’ve watched the process of how some of those groups convince young men and women to become suicide bombers. It’s an intricate, very involved process. And they go after the most vulnerable of the teenage, preteen kids, and they beat them over the head with everything that is wrong and everything that has happened. And they see it in their own families and what’s happening on the ground, and their father’s land is being taken, they’re the third son out of five, they have no future. And that is played up, and the idea that they will be heroes if they do this. We have to have an alternative for them to get them away from that. And I’ll go back to what I’ve said several times, there has to be something that shows hope at the end of this.

PETRAEUS: If I could just add, for the those that are listening and haven’t seen this great book, The Much Too Promised Land by Aaron, I commend it to you. It captures the complexity, the challenges, the hopes, the frustrations, the realities just brilliantly. And congratulations to you on it, Aaron.

DEYOUNG: Let’s go to go to another question.

OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Jane Harman.

Q: Good afternoon, everyone. Aaron, you got a lot of free publicity. I’m very jealous. (Laughter.) I’m sure you set it up ahead of time. Just kidding. Very good conversation.

Here’s my question. I know everyone agrees that hope is not a strategy. And I’m having a very hard time, in spite of what General Zinni keeps repeating, fitting the “build” piece into something Israel would ever want to do. Bibi Netanyahu, it seems to me, has spent decades using the radicalized Palestinians around him as a prop to keep himself in power. And now he still faces court challenges and so forth. So I guess my question is, given current management in Israel, is there any way that there would ever be a real open mind to the hope strategy? And if there isn’t, what are the chances of perhaps causing the Israelis to want to have new elections and change their government?

PETRAEUS: General?

DEYOUNG: Who wants to tackle that one?

ZINNI: I’ll take that on. I think that—well, obviously Jane’s right about the current government and the current—maybe even the current attitude at the time. But we have to go—we have to work past that. No one lives forever. No government’s in place forever. And we have to—we have to convince the Israeli people as well to have the sense of security and confidence that embarking on a path that will lead to something like this will allow them to have a secure life, and not be constantly worried that they lost control of areas around a very small country. And that’s a long haul too.

But I think if we focus on this Israeli government, this leadership, and say this is it forever, I agree with Jane. You killed hope. But I don’t think that the Israeli people will stay with this in the longer term, especially if it doesn’t lead to the kind of results that they want. I mean, right now we have—we’re seeing internationally the rejection of everything that’s going on. The U.N. votes, even in our own country, on our own campuses. We’re seeing, unfortunately, this sort of anti-Israeli antisemitic reaction that’s happening. Do we know that the next generation of Americans will have the same kind of allegiance toward Israel that my generation and ones before us had? I don’t know about that.

So what’s at risk here if they aren’t willing to change a government or have a government that’s more willing to engage in a process that will lead to something that gives hope? I’m not—I’m not naive enough to think that this would happen overnight. But I think, what’s the alternative, is the question.

DEYOUNG: Let’s go to another question.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Jordan Reimer.

Q: Hi. Thank you so much.

The one thing we haven’t discussed yet is Iran. And I’m wondering, what are your thoughts? If we were able to come up with a representative government, there would still be elements of unreconcilables. Do you think that Iran would still be able to maintain a foothold among the Palestinian people? And would that be—would that be able to continue to be a pressure point on Israel? Thank you.

PETRAEUS: Well, of course, it’s much bigger than just Hamas, in this case. I mean, Hamas is, without question, funded, in some cases certainly equipped, trained to a degree, enabled, and, in some cases, perhaps directed. Although there’s no evidence whatsoever that they directed the October 7 attacks. And in fact, there is evidence that they were surprised by the execution of them. But it’s bigger than that, of course. I mean, Iran is trying to Lebanon-ize Iraq, which is a problem for the United States. In other words, to create in Iraq what they did in Lebanon, which is a very powerful Iranian-supported militia on the ground and the power in the parliament to prevent anything they don’t like. They’d like to do the same thing in Iraq. And, of course, they’re also funding, training, equipping, and, to various degrees, directing Hezbollah, which has been limiting its operations against Israel to a considerable degree, considering that it has 150,000 rockets and missiles and so forth it could unleash on Israel, some of which are much longer range and more precise and larger warheads than in the past.

But they got hammered in 2006. And I think we actually reassessed several times the extent of the damage, and they don’t want that visited upon them again. But still, a real problem that Iran, in many respects, is enabling. And then, of course, you have the Houthis, which are—have reduced traffic through the Red Sea by some 60 percent or so, dramatically reducing the revenue Egypt gets from the Suez Canal at a time when that economy is very fragile and they’re desperately seeking hard currency from other countries. Has not had a massive effect on the global economy because it has not reduced supply of crude oil or natural gas. It just—those that are—actually would go through the Red Sea are going around Africa. It takes an extra ten to fourteen days. The additional cost, needless to say. But it’s not a huge impact.

But nonetheless, that freedom of navigation has got to be restored. I think the U.S. Navy will, over time, sufficiently degrade, and disrupt, and eventually defeat what it is the Houthis are able to do. But they’re a very resilient enemy. We saw that during the civil war in Yemen, where the other side was supported by the Emiratis and the Saudis. The Houthi supported by Iran. So, look, you know, the rule number one of the Middle East, I always felt—there are actually a couple of rules. I’ll bounce them off General Zinni, who a few—more than a few commanders before me. But rule number one is: Know who your enemies are and know who your friends are. Iran is an enemy. Israel is a friend. And then, number two is Las Vegas rules do not apply in the Middle East. What happens there doesn’t stay there, which is why we have to stay engaged.

And every time we try to reduce our forces, we’re reminded. And Fareed Zakaria stole this from me the other day and put it in a column, that—you know, that trying to leave the Middle East is like the Corleone family trying to leave the mafia. You know, every time you do this, Michael Corleone, you get sucked back in. And I think far better that we that we—(off mic)—that, yes, we need to rebalance to Asia; yes, the Indo-Pacific has to be the number-one priority, without question; but that doesn’t mean that you pivot away from. You should maintain a certain presence, (that is ?) more clearly than I think we had at the time.

By the way, just a footnote. The U.S. Navy’s really engaged in the first real maritime combat, arguably, since World War II. yes, there were the tanker wars in the Gulf, but nothing like this. They’re getting—intercepting major missiles. there have been underwater drones and so forth. There’s an ace out there, a Marine pilot who’s actually shot down six drones. This is quite a campaign. But it has to be methodical. You have to have the intelligence architecture that enables you to identify not just when they’re about to launch, but where they’re being stored, with the radars are, the command and control, the ship locations—all of this. And I think they’re doing this quite impressively. But it’s going to be a long effort. This is not the work of weeks or a couple of months. I think we’re going to have to have an enduring effort there before that can be restored, the freedom of navigation, to what it was prior. Over.

ZINNI: Let me just add that I don’t think there’s a natural connection between the Palestinians and the Iranians. That’s a—that’s an arrangement of convenience. You know, Persian Shia, Arab Sunni, you know, if you—they can be weaned away from that relationship. The Houthis, I think—and I’d like to get General Petraeus’ reaction to this—I think we can bring the Houthis to the table. And I think the Omanis might be the best source of opening up a dialog and trying to figure out how that can be quieted down. But, you know, David is more recent than I am in terms of the dynamics out there now.

DEYOUNG: I think we had the Houthis at the table, didn’t we? I mean, and but this situation has sort of blown up the whole thing.

ZINNI: Yeah. Yeah.

PETRAEUS: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. Yeah, look, I think that there—I think General Zinni’s comment earlier that weaning some of them away is a valid, and would be a wise, effort. At the very least to make that effort. Of course, Israel’s going to have to do this, though. Again, we’re not on the ground. We’re not engaged. This is something they have to do as part of their campaign. So I don’t say that everyone there is irreconcilable. I tend to think the leaders are, though. I think that they are much closer to the Islamic State than they are to groups that you can win them over. But it doesn’t mean—again, you—again, you can’t kill or capture your way out of an industrial-strength insurgency. You have to do some degree of reconciliation.

So I would actually see it more the Houthis that are administering, in a way. They’re the bureaucrats. They’re the people that know how to turn the lights back on, to fix the water system, get the energy going. All of these things that you need actually to run in an area that you don’t fully understand. That’s, I think, where there might be an effort. And then eventually, of course, you persuade the people that life is better without the Houthis than it was with them. But I’d also underscore what General Zinni said, that there’s not a natural affinity here. You know, the idea that, again, Persian Shia have a friendship with Sunni Arabs, it’s very different from the friendship that they have, which is much more natural, with the Hezbollah Shia militia in Iraq and the Houthis, all of whom are obviously Shia, even if of slightly different elements, if you will, or slightly—somewhat different sects, if you will.

DEYOUNG: I want to just raise the question in my mind that that is closer to your more recent experience, General Zinni, talking about the question of leverage and what incentives are for Israel. You know, the administration’s holding out the prospect of Saudi-Israeli relations to persuade the Israeli government to essentially do what it wants and get on board to a two-state solution, however remote that seems with the current Israeli government. But some say the Saudis are asking for too much—a bilateral security agreement, a civil nuclear agreement, major new arms sales. How do you see the prospect of regional cooperation? And can that actually be part of the solution? And is the administration too eager now to give the Saudis things that they never would have given them in the past, in order to get the Israelis to do something?

ZINNI: Well, for the first part of your question, Karen, you know, the holy grail out there ever since CENTCOM was created is to form a coalition that had a multilateral agreement of some sort. They like doing business bilaterally. You know, they like one-offs. But I do think, if the Saudi approach would be that we can bring in, let’s say, the gulf states, the GCC states. collectively if certain things can be met, and if those things from the Israeli point of view are a little too much, let’s sit down and talk about them. Let’s negotiate them. You know, it has the potential if the Israeli see that they can get a wider regional collective multilateral arrangement, they might be willing to compromise on some of these, or agree to some of these. But it’s worth talking about. But I think doing these one-off, like it’s with the Saudis, or it’s with the Emiratis, or with the Bahrainis—I think that that approach doesn’t offer enough incentive to get these done.

PETRAEUS: You know, we used to have a term called bilateral multilateralism. (Laughs.) I’m sure General Zinni knows what I mean. They won’t work with each other, but they’ll work with us. And then we could integrate what it is they were working with us. So integrated air defense system, which is one of the elements of the holy grail, can’t you all just share threat information, early warning, radar, and so forth? And there wasn’t the level of trust to do that. So they would do it with us, and then we would do it, and we would integrate it all together. We have to sort of do that again here, I think. That’s how it will start out. Noting that some of these countries are, you know, a good bit more really influential, and have progressed very substantially from even just, say, you know, fifteen years ago or ten years ago.

DEYOUNG: I think we have time for one or two more questions from the members.

OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Elise Labott.

Q: Can you hear me? Thank you.


Q: Oh, thank you, General Petraeus and General Zinni. Elise Labott with American University.

I would just love to follow up on what General Zinni was saying about the government and the public attitude. It definitely seems as if right now, and maybe not in anytime soon, it’s not just the government but the Israeli public that isn’t ready for kind of the future that we’re discussing today, for safety reasons or just from the trauma from October 7. So I’m just wondering, you know, how we move past, you know, this trauma to get back to the idea that a majority of Israelis do want a two-state solution? Because the country has moved so far to the right, I’m wondering if it’s not just an issue of governments but an issue of public attitude, that politicians will continue to try to bend to. Thank you.

ZINNI: Elise, I would say that that’s a great point, because you probably have to start out talking about security, and security guarantees first. When I went out there it was right after 9/11. The Second Intifada was going on. And Secretary Powell told me, let’s try to do this one piece at a time, and start with security because that on both sides will have the most immediate impact. And then from security, you could move into some of the other issues. You could even do it at the same time, but prioritize security initially because, to your point, it’s what you need to build confidence to proceed on. And some sort of confidence that we’ve created a security umbrella that allows us to move to the next steps.

PETRAEUS: I was going to say the exact same thing. I think that’s exactly right. When you’ve experienced something as traumatic as this, it’s all about security. And again, keep in mind that that’s not just about Hamas in Gaza. It’s also Hezbollah has to be resolved. It is also, again, issues in the West Bank. There’s also, Elise, no question that sentiment in Israel has shifted from a good majority that was in favor of a two-state for to two peoples to either even or even less support and general opposition to it. Just, again, a very close call. But that is very, very significant. And so there’s going to then have to be a real campaign, again, to point out that in the absence of an alternative, none of which has been offered that is really viable—and General Zinni laid out the challenges of demographics—that they’re going to have to get back to this.

But security is the first step. Remember, in Vietnam John Paul Vann said: Security may be the first 10 percent or the first 90 percent, but it is the first. It may be 10 percent of the solution or 90 percent, but it’s the first 10 or 90 percent. So, again, that’s the situation here. And that has to be the focus, clearly. But there should be a vision for the future. And the sooner that can be provided that gives hope to the Palestinians as well as security to the Israelis, the better. Because you need that vision out there to guide what you do in the short and medium term.

DEYOUNG: I’m afraid we have to stop there, although I know a lot of people have a lot more questions, as do I. This has been terrific. Thank you all for joining today’s virtual meeting. And thank you to General Zinni, General Petraeus. Thank you.

ZINNI: Thank you, Karen.

PETRAEUS: It’s great to be your wingman, sir.

ZINNI: Great, David.


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