Security Studies Seminar

From Vietnam to Iraq : Reflections of a National Security Journalist

Bob Zelnick
Department of Journalism, Boston University

February 16, 2005

During his talk, Zelnick discussed his observations as a national security journalist who has undertaken assignments in Vietnam, Israel, and the Pentagon.

He began with an overview of the knowledge and perspective acquired from foreign assignments.

He then discussed his time as a freelance reporter in Vietnam during the "body count" period (1967-1970). He divided Vietnam into three periods: Buildup (1963-1966), Body Count (1967-1970), and the Last Stage (1970-1973). He described his impressions of Vietnam in these three periods:


Body Count:

Last Stage:

Finally, he considered the causes of the US failure in Vietnam . First, the US "bought the country at French going-out-of-business sale." In essence, the war was lost at that time. First, it was an anti-colonial and nationalist war and the Vietcong had charismatic leaders. Second, US restrictions on ground operations north of 17 th parallel were a factor. The US did not want a repeat of Korea, bringing Chinese into the war. Third, the US did not have a strong national interest in Vietnam. Vietnam became a dysfunctional part of our foreign policy. In our attempt to exploit the Sino-Soviet split, the US had to provide assurance of its intention to leave Vietnam .

He next discussed his assignment to Moscow as an ABC on-air correspondent in the 1980s. He characterized this period as the "bleak part of the Cold War." He specifically addressed Soviet attitudes towards the Western press during this period.

Despite Soviet efforts, reporters managed to acquire insight into the way society worked in the Soviet Union. For example, in his interview with the editor of a Moscow newspaper, he asked why the newspaper did not make mention of the Nazis the day following the Nazi invasion of Soviet Union. The Editor replied that the party needed time to decide its position. Zelnick also commented that he was proud of the western media for establishing lines of communication with the dissidents.

From 1984-1986, he was a correspondent in Israel. This was during the time in which Israel was in Beirut and expelled the PLO, which then set up in Tunis. The Israelis were less successful in installing a Lebanese government, and Lebanon fell apart. He provided the following anecdotes:

•  Following the attack on the US Marines, Defense Secretary Weinburger commented "the Marines were not withdrawn, just reassigned to their ships."

•  In an interview with a Palestinian lawyer, he commented that the best thing was for the PLO to be expelled. The Palestinians had always hoped for a savior, but now they needed to define their own movement. The next thing that happened was the first Intifada.

From 1986-1994, he covered the Pentagon as a correspondent. He felt the Reagan buildup was necessary to compensate for the drain of resources due to Vietnam and in part for ideological reasons. Following the end of the Cold War, he believes little thinking was devoted to how things changed with respect to relations with allies and the role of US in the world (some began to use term imperial). The causes of terrorism were seen as fleeting. Terrorism was regarded more as a nuisance than a threat to states. In regard to the first Persian Gulf War, he provided the following observations:

•  The Gulf War (1991) was almost tailor-made to define the US as a powerful but benign protector of world stability, for the enemy was a brutal dictator. Bush was successful in forming an international coalition, garnering Congressional support, and obtaining a UN resolution.

•  Why did we not go to Baghdad and dispose of Hussein? In his opinion, a consensus existed inside the Bush Administration that Hussein would fall, as he had embarrassed himself in losing an important war. The best outcome would be a palace coup, ensuring stability and not disrupting the balance-of-power between Iraq and Iran. Bush also repeated even before forming the international coalition that he would not overthrow Hussein. Bush commented that he wanted Hussein out of Kuwait, not Iraq .

In the run-up to the Second Gulf War, Zelnick found the evidence of Hussein's commitment to WMD strong. The evidence included his past use, Iraq 's strategic doctrine, and its interactions with UN inspectors. He believes that weapons inspections only work when there is a significant military force in the region in the event inspectors are intimidated or expelled. However, the US could not keep 150-200,000 troops in the region indefinitely. He agrees Bush has made mistakes, including his continued support of Rumsfeld. He believes, however, the likelihood of success in Iraq is much greater than Vietnam :

Bob Zelnick is Chairman of the Department of Journalism at Boston University . During his twenty-one years with ABC News, he covered national security issues for ABC Morning News, World News Tonight Saturday/Sunday, and This Week. Zelnick served as the ABC News Pentagon correspondent from 1986-94, as ABC's Tel Aviv correspondent from 1984-1986, and as Moscow correspondent from 1982-1984. He has won two Emmy Awards and two Gavel Awards for his work. He has published in numerous newspaper magazines, and scholarly journals, and is the author of Gore: A Political Life, a biography of Vice President Al Gore, and Backfire, A Reporter's Look at Affirmative Action .

Rapporteur: Kelly Grieco

back to seminar summary, Spring 2005