General John Abizaid speaks on our future in the Middle East

Whether we like it or not, conflict in the Middle East is going to be in all of our futures, the former top U.S. commander in the region told students last Wednesday. And, in that future, Americans can assume there will be another attack on U.S. soil.

Retired Army Gen. John Abizaid told a large group of students and guests to prepare for another half-century of American presence in the region. Speaking in Rangos 1, Abizaid said Iraq was merely a segment of the Middle East conflict.

“It’s going to be hard; it’s going to be long; it’s going to be arduous, dangerous, bloody, and expensive,” he said. “But, on the other hand, I do believe it’s workable, provided that we have conversations like this and understand the dynamics that are at play out there.”

In Wednesday’s speech, Abizaid stressed the importance of confronting the ideological challenges in the Middle East, especially al-Qaida, which has moved the battle to the “international communication zone” of the Internet, marking a historic shift in warfare.

When asked what has prevented al-Qaida from attacking the U.S. after Sept. 11, Abizaid responded, “luck.”

Abizaid also outlined four broad issues that will keep Americans in the Middle East for a long time: the rise of Sunni extremism, exemplified by such groups as al-Qaida; growing Shiite extremism, epitomized by the Iranian government; the Arab-Israeli conflict; and the world economy’s dependency on Middle East oil.

“I’m not saying this is a war for oil, but I am saying that oil … fuels an awful lot of the geopolitical moves that political powers may have there,” he said. “And it is absolutely essential that we in the United States of America figure out how, in the long run, to lessen our dependency on foreign energy.”

To move forward, Abizaid said, America cannot rely on military power alone. Instead, he said, the U.S. government must collaborate more effectively to bring diplomacy, economic power, and political activity into the equation.

“I would characterize what we’re doing now as 80 percent military, 20 percent diplomatic, economic, political, educational, informational, intelligence etc.,” Abizaid said. “You’ve got to take that equation and change it. Make it 80 percent those other things.”

During the question-and-answer portion of his lecture, Abizaid encouraged students in the crowd to serve the country and suggested they prepare for diplomatic jobs by learning about the culture, language, and politics of the Middle East. He also pointed to ways for helping in humanitarian efforts.

He lauded Carnegie Mellon’s Qatar campus for bridging cultures and “making a huge contribution to the long-term peace and stability of the region,” and told The Tartan he was impressed by the depth of students’ interest in the region.

Alex Rutgers, the ROTC battalion commander at Carnegie Mellon, found Abizaid’s speech interesting from a military point of view.

“I was inspired to emulate his appreciation from a soldier’s standpoint for political and diplomatic victories in tandem with military gains,” he said. Rutgers, a senior in physics and international relations, also resonated with Abizaid’s call to understand the Middle East through language and culture.

In an interview following the speech, Abizaid told The Tartan the American government needs to look at the national institutions to more effectively issue economic aid to “nations in difficulty,” such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Abizaid estimated that stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan will take another three to five years. Even after their governments gain a firmer hold, the U.S. will have to maintain a presence in the region.

“We can’t turn our back on the world. It’s too small,” he said.

Abizaid pointed to the Combined Joint Task Force for Africa, the U.S. military operation assigned to combat terrorism in the Horn of Africa, as an example of the type of structure necessary in the Middle East. Rather than having an active military role, the task force functions to “help the people help themselves,” and has been largely successful in helping local governments stabilize, Abizaid said.

Abizaid retired in March after a four-year stint as head of the U.S. Central Command, a tenure that makes him its longest-serving leader.

An Arab-American fluent in Arabic and an expert in Middle Eastern affairs, Abizaid studied at West Point, Harvard, and the University of Jordan in Amman. Having retired from the Army altogether in May, Abizaid now owns an international security consulting firm and is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

Senior Eileen Morrison wasn’t impressed with his lecture.

“I’m a little bit disappointed,” said Morrison, who is double majoring in business administration and international relations. “He has wealth of experience, and I just felt that he didn’t give me any information I didn’t know.”

Morrison also felt Abizaid’s perspective on future action was too general. “Someone has to start having ideas,” she said. “People just keep saying ‘I don’t know.’ There has to be a plan. You can’t just keep going forward without a plan.”

In stressing the long-term nature of the region’s conflict, Abizaid said Americans must demand that debate happen in a way that moves beyond a twofold solution of staying in or leaving Iraq.

“I’m a soldier — not a Republican, not a Democrat. I’m the poor son-of-a-gun that got saddled with this problem militarily,” Abizaid said. “It is a problem we need to have our presidential candidates talk about squarely so we can figure out the way ahead.”