Gen. Abizaid speaks on US involvement in the Middle East

John Abizaid
John Abizaid
April 27, 2015

In a wide-ranging talk at IGS on April 9, retired U.S. Army General John Abizaid discussed the U.S. role in the continuing conflicts in the Middle East, as well as other areas of concern in current U.S. foreign relations, including China and Russia.

Abizaid, who served in the United States Army for 34 years and was the longest-serving commander of the United States Central Command, began by outlining some of America’s main concerns in global relations today. He predicted that future competition with China will not only express itself economically, but also through military means, and that the United States is becoming increasingly concerned with Russia’s interest in surrounding regions, namely Georgia, the Caucasus, and areas of Central Asia. However, Abizaid emphasized the need for a larger role in the Middle East region.

“In 2001, there was no doubt we had to get involved in the Middle East because our economic health – and the world’s economic health – depended on it,” said Abizaid. “Yet the situation in the Middle East today is very different. The United States wants to care about China and Russia but we need considerable power back in the Middle East region.”

Abizaid described how Sunni Islamic extremist groups, including Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Boko Haram, have grown in size, scope, and interests. For the first time, radical Islamic groups control territory, have governance, and may have the means to continue expansion. Abizaid mentioned that in the Sunni Islamic world, you have people gravitating toward Sunni extremism because they feel like there is nowhere else to turn to in order to have a better future.

“Right now we’re in the third inning and this problem of Sunni Islamic extremism has yet to play itself out,” stated Abizaid. “I’m not saying Islam has become extreme. I’m saying the extremist power has grown and will continue to be a factor that we need to be attentive to. The question about the United States is: what can we do about it?”

Abizaid believe the United States needs to find centers of moderation in the Middle East to work with, stating that there are moderate nonreligious sources of power in the region. He believes the balance of power in the region – which include Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt – is starting to fall apart.

“Sometimes you need to stand for something instead of saying it’s all up to them,” concluded Abizaid. “We have to make ourselves reliable.” 

Abizaid later took questions from the audience, entertaining inquiries ranging from the legitimacy and life of ISIS, redrawing the map of the Middle East, and weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.

Now into its fifth year, the Harold Smith Defense and National Security Series (HSS) focuses on United States defense policies and nuclear weapons management. This was the second HSS seminar of 2015.