General Abizaid: US Can't Turn Its Back on 'Chaos' in the Middle East

In Grand Strategy talk, military leader reflects back on his tenure in Middle East, assesses current situation

Abizaid and Feaver

Gen. John Abizaid answers an audience question on current trends in the Middle East Tuesday night at the Sanford School. Photo by Jon Gardiner/Duke Photography

As the Middle East descends into growing “chaos,” America’s influence is diminishing, but the former US military commander in the Middle East said Tuesday there’s no way forward toward stability in the region without a significant role of the United States.

“I don't want my grandkids to fight in the Middle East. But I don't see how there will be a better future without an American role,” said Gen. John Abizaid, a retired US Army general who served as U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) commander from 2003-2007.

In conversation with Duke Professor Peter Feaver as part of Duke’s America Grand Strategy Program, Abizaid said America can’t turn its back on the region.  Long term chaos there will continue to influence the flow of refugees and the willingness of people to turn to extremism.

Strategic military action must be part of that role, although many of the problems require political solutions and reliance on air power alone will be ineffective.

"Military power only buys time for political action,” Abizaid told around 150 people at the Sanford School of Public Policy. “Extended but indecisive use of force equals a dangerous situation.” 

Feaver told Abizaid, “Sounds like we are losing,” but Abizaid refused to be drawn, responding, “Winning and losing is a sports term, not a geopolitical term…This is a long war.”

Abizaid added that he still supports training Syrian rebels, acknowledging that hasn’t worked out well. That effort is necessary to counter the growing influence of ISIS and other armed Islamist groups who are “winning the hearts and minds game” with Sunni Muslim populations.

“Shooting (their leaders) “from 10,000 feet hoping to kill them one at a time isn't the solution,” he said. “This isn't a one at a time problem."

With the World War I imposed Middle East borders essentially “broken” he said, there’s “a regional free-for-all for influence and power.” This includes the Gulf states, Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Russia.

“Russia wants a seat at the table as far as what happens in the Middle East,” Abizaid said. It's a geopolitical move."  He didn’t rule out the U.S. finding “common ground” with Russia.

Warning of the spread of Islamic extremism, he said one way forward toward peace is for the international community is to bolster moderate partners throughout the region to help it “move away from the direction it’s heading in.” However he didn’t underestimate that challenge.

When he served in the region as a junior officer, the Middle East was more nationalistic and political and less swept up with religious ideology than it currently is.

For more on the talk, see the ISLAMiCommentary storify page.

Below, more than 150 people attended the talk, part of the speaker series organized by the American Grand Strategy Program. Photo by Jon Gardiner/Duke Photography.

Abizaid speaks at Grand Strategy Program