The Cable

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.

: 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.

AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

Clinton's Asian inaugural romp: Japan first, but China key

As news has emerged that Hillary Clinton's first foreign trip will likely be to Asia, professional Asia watchers are pondering the significance of the secretary of state's reported maiden voyage.

It is in that context that The Cable received a tip on her itinerary, by way of Beijing.

"A little tickler not reported yet is that [Clinton] will be here 19 February," a Beijing hand tells Foreign Policy. "A day before China's foreign minister Yang Jiachi had been expecting to travel to Washington. Washington hadn't replied to the Chinese request so there were some raised eyebrows here."

Clinton will be on a "Seoul-Tokyo-Beijing and maybe Jakarta inaugural romp," the source added.

The State Department said Tuesday that it didn't have the details yet on Clinton's reported itinerary. An administration source suggested details on the trip would emerge in the next 24 hours. The Chinese embassy was closed for the Chinese New Year's holiday and couldn't be reached.

"I suspect that the order of her itinerary is going to be Japan first," said Adam Segal, a senior fellow on Chinese studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. The sequencing of destinations "means something. There's been a great deal of worry in Tokyo about what they call ‘Japan-passing.' That the Obama administration will be so interested in working with the Chinese, that they are not going to pay enough attention to the U.S.'s most important relationship in Asia, Japan. The Japanese have been very unhappy when [during the primary] Hillary Clinton wrote a Foreign Affairs piece, which the Japanese feel didn't sufficiently stress Japan in it."

"Going to China is part of a larger signal that the Obama administration wants to send to China, about how our default position is going to be try to work with China on economic issues, climate change, North Korea and hopefully Iran and Darfur," Segal continued.

"This demonstrates the Secretary's understanding that the locus of power in the world has shifted from Europe to Asia," said Mitchell Reiss, vice-provost of international affairs at the College of William and Mary and former director of the State Department office of policy planning under Secretary of State Colin Powell. "It recognizes that the most important relationship for the United States this century is likely to be with China.  Assuming that she stops in Japan first, it will also allow her to send an important signal to Tokyo that she will not engage in ‘Japan passing,'  thereby erasing memories of President Clinton's visit to Asia when he visited China but not Japan."

"[Deputy Secretary of State] Jim Steinberg has a long interest in China," noted the Council on Foreign Relations' Paul Stares. When Steinberg served as director of foreign policy studies at Brookings, Stares added, "He was particularly interested in long term trends on China as a player in global governance for the rest of the century."

Making Asia her first foreign trip "is a very good idea since the administration is already sending special envoys to the Middle East and South/Central Asia, while the NATO summit in April guarantees that Europe will receive a lot of high-level attention," said the Hudson Institute's Richard Weitz. "With Ambassador Hill moving to Iraq, it definitely makes sense for Secretary Clinton to reassure our South Korean and Japanese allies as well as exchange views with the Chinese about global and regional economic, climate, and security issues."

UPDATE: Adds Washington Asia watcher Chris Nelson of Samuels International in the Nelson Report, "Clinton's Asia trip main policy outcome is likely to be whether she can establish herself, and State, as the manager of US-China relations."