The United States could spend another five to seven years in Iraq, even if the administration takes drastic steps to reshape its Iraq policy.

That’s the assessment of retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, who spoke to a group of more than 140 people at a John Locke Foundation Headliner event today in Raleigh.

A key theme involved the lack of an effective government structure to implement Iraq policy, whether the policy itself if good or bad. Zinni sees the inefficiency as he assesses (video clip) the war’s current price tag:

We?re at $400 billion now and counting. For $400 billion, you could have bought the country. Saddam would have been living on the Riviera now, and we could have bought him off and walked in there without a shot. I don?t understand how we have wasted this. We can see the wasting in contracting and everything else.

Like everybody else, I have a set of ideas about political reconstruction, about security reconstruction, about economic development, and about how the social interaction has to take place ? the mediation between ethnic groups and factions.  I did that for our government for a number of years. But none of that will take hold unless you commit to the right people. You structure the organization where they can have access to the decision makers. You give them the resources they need. You monitor those resources to make sure they?re being applied.

That?s what it?s going to take. It?s going to take keeping some organization like the Baker-Hamilton group in being to oversee it. It?s going to take creating an interagency task force with authority that can tap and task into the other agencies of government. It?s going to take sending the right people out who can talk to the countries in the region and their leaders and to the international community for help and support now because I think they?re beginning to realize the problems are going to stretch beyond just Iraq and [start] affecting us. And then it?s to build the plans and programs and putting them in the ground.

I think you could still do it. I think it will take five to seven years. We will need the patience and support of the American people. They certainly won?t support continuing the way we?re going now. It may require in the short term more troops, I believe. I don?t think we could sustain more troops over the longer period. But I think if you were serious about this and you had the programs and you needed a short period of time that you need to get control of the security situation, it might do it.

If you?re not committed to that, if you won?t commit to that kind of structure, that kind of detailed development reconstruction of a society, then it?s pointless to waste the lives or our young men and women and the treasure that?s being thrown down this rat hole now to no effect. And it?s pointless to present the president with a Chinese menu of things to do without the mechanism to be able to put them into play. 

We’ll have more on Zinni’s speech tomorrow morning on the web site. Look for Associate Editor Paul Chesser’s story under “CJ Exclusives.”