Abizaid: Middle East is still a relevant region for the U.S.
In order to both support secular, democratic forces and combat jihadist elements in the Middle East, the United States must retain an un-occupying, mobile land force in the region, according to Gen. John Abizaid, USA, Ret., a former commander of U.S. Central Command that oversees this area of the world.
“The problem [in the Middle East] requires land power to be used, in smaller ways than we use them in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Abizaid said, while speaking at the Gen. Bernard W. Rogers Strategic Issues Forum, sponsored by the Association of the United States Army and its Institute of Land Warfare.
Adding, “But we should never lose sight of the fact that land power will be necessary to deal with the emergencies that will come here in rapid succession in the next five years, in my opinion.”
While the U.S. moves its diplomatic and military focus towards the pacific region, Abizaid warned against pivoting too quickly away from the still relevant region of the Middle East for a variety of reasons.
“If we continue to give the impression that American power is leaving, because we don’t want to be here anymore, we will create a security vacuum that unfortunately can be replaced to a certain extent by unfriendly countries such as Iran and friendly countries such as Turkey,” Abizaid said, later adding that if the United States is committed to leaving in this way it should then “contain Iran and enhance Turkey.”
Within the Middle East, and larger “Islamic world,” Abizaid described a continuing cold war between Sunni and Shia factions, pushing the region into “revolutionary turmoil.”
In addition, he believes the authority of states in the region is losing ground to international, sectarian identities like religion and ethnicity—the most threatening is the growth of radical Sunni and Shia Islam.
“The Sunni-Shia divide … is becoming much and much more deadly than I’ve seen in a long time,” said Abizaid, who is of Christian-Lebanese heritage.
“The amount of violence along the Sunni-Shia fault lines … is increasing. It’s not decreasing,” he added.
Specifically problematic, Abizaid explained, is the growth of jihadist ideology from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region to the greater Islamic world. This ideology, he said, isn’t necessarily centrally controlled by any one organization but rather is a decentralized “ideological spread” and “way of thinking.”
“Radical Sunni Islam … is not mainstream,” Abizaid said. “But it’s mainstream enough to cause violence to take place not only in this region but in Europe and the United States, nearly everywhere on the planet, in ways that are very unpredictable and very violent.”
Abizaid also addressed the issues of Israeli security, which he described as “deteriorating” and “dangerous;” potential nuclear proliferation; and oil production in the face of this regional upheaval.
As to the oil issue, he explained that although the United States is moving toward less dependency on Middle Eastern oil, the world economy still relies heavily on it.
Therefore, Abizaid said, attacks on the local oil sector by radical Shia and radical Sunni groups should still be an American concern.
As to the Arab Spring, Abizaid believes it holds great potential for both a safer world and a more dangerous one.
“It’s too soon to say how the Arab Spring turns out,” he said. “Jihadist activity, ideology, and sympathy have not been on the wane.”
Abizaid described Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia as still within a “revolutionary turmoil.”
Regarding Egypt, he believes that despite its illiberal views the Muslim-Brotherhood-dominated government of Mohamed Morsi can be worked with.
The fear, according to Abizaid, is that Morsi’s government is not the finality of the Arab Spring but rather a temporary government, akin to Alexander Kerensky’s short-lived government during the Russian revolution, that falls to more extreme elements, like the Egyptian salafists.
“I worry that as things go on and the economy deteriorates and the security situation deteriorates, and the salafists and the jihadists become louder and louder and louder, that it provides the opportunity for the ‘Kerensky government’ to fall to the ‘Bolsheviks.’”
In order to prevent such Islamist takeovers in Egypt and across the Middle East, Abizaid advocated that the U.S. engage and support those on the opposite side of the spectrum.
“We have not supported the secular people who really want to move their nations forward,” Abizaid said.
In addition, he believes the United States needs a more coherent foreign policy in regards to revolutionary and potentially revolutionary states. For example, if the “Jordanians gets in trouble” with the Muslim Brotherhood challenging the regime’s authority, Abizaid asked: “Where does the United States stand?”
“This battle is not against Al Qaeda,” he said. “It is against Sunni Islamic jihadism. And we have to start talking in those terms.”
My only quibble with this is that Sunni/Shia cooperation among radicals has been growing. Iran and Hamas, for example, have put aside doctrinal differences in the face of common enemies. Infidels are always the primary target.