Gen. John P. Abizaid, the most senior military officer of Arab descent to serve in the US armed forces, disagreed with President Bush over the president’s Iraq strategy—and he is out.
On Dec. 20, 2006, the Pentagon announced that Abizaid, an American of Lebanese origin, would step down from his position as Commander of CENTCOM (US Central Command) and retire in March 2007. Abizaid said he would have liked to retire later but that these decisions are never made alone, a subtle way of saying he was pushed. “At the Pentagon, the knives are inserted so slowly that they are hard to notice,” said one long-timePentagon observer.
Abizaid, who as a cadet at West Point was nick named the “Mad Arab,” is considered a no-nonsense man, someone who is not afraid to speak his mind or to take the initiative. During the 1983 invasion of Grenada, Abizaid and his unit jumped from a helicopter onto a landing strip. Under fire from Cuban troops and lacking proper armor, Abizaid ordered one of his Rangers to drive a bulldozer toward the Cubans as he advanced behind it—a scene reenacted in Clint Eastwood’s 1986 film, “Heartbreak Ridge.”
But acts of derring-do aside, he was a realist, one who dared oppose the White House over Bush’s surge of US forces in Iraq. “You have to internationalize the problem,” Abizaid said. “You have to attack it diplomatically, geo-strategically. You just can’t apply a microscope on a particular problem in downtown Baghdad and a particular problem in downtown Kabul and say that somehow or another, if you throw enough military forces at it, that you are going to solve the broader issues in the region of extremism.”
The problem is that his opinions clashed with those of the White House. Abizaid was the first officer to officially call the fighting in Iraq a guerrilla war, despite denials from the White House and the Pentagon. He was the first to raise the alarm that sectarian violence was spreading. Abizaid saw the rising civil war in Iraq as replacing terrorism as the biggest threat to Iraq’s stability. He was the first to tell Congress that Iraq faced the risk of slipping into civil war.
Abizaid opposed Bush’s troop surge on the grounds that he felt the answer to Iraq’s problems lay more in a political settlement than in escalating the conflict. Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, told the general during a heated debate, “I’m of course disappointed that basically you’re advocating the status quo here today, which I think the American people in the last election said is not an acceptable condition.”
Abizaid also coined the phrase “the long war” to describe the challenges in fighting radical Islamist terrorism. He believed the United States is not properly organized to face the emerging threat of Islamist terrorism head-on. “I think our structures for 21st century security challenges need to adapt to this type of an enemy,” he said. “The 21st century really requires that we figure out how to get economic, diplomatic, political and military elements of power synchronized and coordinated against specific problems wherever they exist.”
He was the first to publicly say that a solution in Iraq required talks with Iran and Syria. The dispute over the increase of troop levels brought out in the open the schism between the uniforms and the suits. Testifying before a Senate committee on Nov. 15, Abizaid said, “I do not believe that more American troops right now is the solution to the problem. I believe that the troop levels need to stay where they are.”
Abizaid predicted that the insurgencies in the four Sunni provinces in northern and central Iraq will be there for the foreseeable future (a view that goes against President Bush’s hopes that by deploying an additional 21,500 soldiers and Marines, the insurgency may be somehow contained) and believes that the U.S.’s primary enemy in Iraq is al-Qaeda, whose plan is to keep casualties in the media until the American public becomes convinced that victory is impossible and leaves the region.
“When you take a look at the reach of the extremism as exemplified by al-Qaeda, it’s not just in Afghanistan, it’s not just in Iraq—it’s in Pakistan, it’s in Saudi Arabia, it’s in Great Britain, it’s in Spain,” he said. “It attacked the United States. It is organized in the virtual world in a way that is very unique, very modern, very dangerous.”
But then what does he know? He’s just a mad Arab, isn’t he?