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  • Welcome to a “Conversation With History.” I’m Harry Kreisler of the Institute

  • of International Studies. Our guest today is John Abizaid who is a retired U.S. Army General

  • and former Commander of the Central Command. He is the first Annenberg Visiting Fellow at

  • the Hoover Institution and this year’s 2008 Admiral Chester Nimitz lecturer at UC Berkeley.

  • General Abizaid, welcome to Berkeley.

  • John Abizaid: Thanks, Harry. Thanks for having me here.

  • Where were you born and raised?

  • Well, I was born in Redwood City, California, and I lived there for about twelve years of so,

  • spent some time on and off in San Francisco, but for the most part it was Redwood City, and

  • then when I got ready to go to high school we moved up into the Sierra Nevada mountains, in

  • Mono County, Coleville, California, and I graduated from high school there, and after that was

  • into the Army.

  • Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?

  • Well, my dad in particular really shaped my thinking about the world. He was a World War

  • II Navy vet. He had served in the Solomons and in the Pacific. He had seen a lot of action on a

  • small ship in the middle of the Pacific. He’d traveled all over the world as a result of that Navy

  • service, and it was clear to me that that service, to him, was really one of the most important

  • things in his life, and as we were growing upmy mother died when I was rather young and he

  • continued to raise my sister and I, and I have great admiration for having grown up with this man

  • who talked about service, loved service, and advocated it.

  • And you said you joined your Army. Where did you get your education before going into

  • the Army?

  • Well, before going into the Army I graduated from Coleville High School, total school

  • population of about 105 students, certainly one of the smaller schools in the State of California.

  • Was there an ROTC?

  • No, there wasn’t an ROTC. There wasn’t a lot of things going on at Coleville, but there

  • were many things going on at Coleville, at the same time. For example, I wanted to study

  • German and in order to study German I had to take a correspondence course and they allowed

  • me to do that. So, it was good experience growing up in a rural county, in a small area, small

  • school. We had excellent instructors and I think they prepared me about as well as could be

  • expected to go on to West Point.

  • And you did go to West Point. Talk about your education there. Did it prepare you for all

  • the changes that the military was going to have to confront throughout your career?

  • Well, West Point prepares you for life in a very interesting way. It gives you discipline, it

  • gives you focus, it gives you a way of approaching problem solving. West Point’s not the type

  • of place to go if youre not committed to being an officer in the United States Army. I knew I

  • wanted to be a soldier and I was committed to doing that, and I thought that West Point would

  • give me a good opportunity to do that. I initially found the academic rigor there pretty tough, not

  • to mention the military rigor but I was expecting that. The academic rigor was very tough,

  • especially with regards to mathematics and engineering. But over time I learned how to work

  • my way through the system and I enjoyed being there.

  • And your career is really one of moving between the university and actually study – I

  • mean, in the sense that you got a Master’s, at some point, at Harvard, and you were an Olmsted

  • fellow to Jordan. Talk a little about that. In what ways did that enhance your education and

  • prepare you for the world you had to confront as a general?

  • It’s very interesting that the military invests very heavily in officer education. Sometimes

  • it’s within military schools, every now and then you can outside of military schools. West Point,

  • for example, provides a record number of Rhodes and Truman Scholars, it’s quite a good

  • institution, but I graduated from West Point, I had been interested in the Olmsted Scholar

  • program, and the Olmsted Scholar program provided an officer with the opportunity essentially

  • to get away from the Army for two years, go to a foreign university, learn a foreign language,

  • and then come back and go to an American university to finish up the Master’s degree work. So,

  • I selected the University of Jordan as a place that I’d like to go to. I learned how to speak

  • Arabic. A lot of people think because of my last name I learned how to speak Arabic at home,

  • but really, it was the Army that taught me how. And I went to the University of Jordan and had

  • that opportunity, then on to Harvard, and I really regarded that training at both Harvard and

  • Jordan as very, very important to being able toto allow me to move through my career in a

  • way that was understanding of different cultures, different problems, and certainly the last five

  • years of my life, in the middle of the Middle East

  • It helped a lot.

  • helped a lot.

  • What led you to choose Jordan, and what year was that? Because that was very early in

  • terms ofthe ‘70s?

  • Yeah, I started out in the program somewhere around 1978, or so, and I was in the Middle

  • East from ’78 to ’80, and then Harvard ’80 to ’81. I think that’s about right, during that time

  • period.

  • The reason I point this out is because the Middle East was going to change. So, you were

  • there, in a way, at the beginning of the changes that would really affect this whole period of your

  • service.

  • Well, it’s interesting you say that, Harry. The Middle East is always changing and the

  • Middle East is never changing. [laughs] I mean, the Middle East is a very, very interesting

  • place, but what was so interesting about going to Jordan during that time periodit was also the

  • time period of the Iranian revolution, and it sent, really, what I would call a religious shock wave

  • through the region in a way that was absolutely noticeable. And there was always a lot of

  • turmoil at Middle Eastern universities, the University of Jordan no less so than other places, and

  • when the University would close down because of the inevitable riot I’d end going out and train

  • with the Jordanian special forces in the army because I was a military officer. So, it was a good

  • opportunity to learn not only about the civil society in Jordan but also about the military society

  • in Jordan, and of course, in the Arab world in particular militaries play very, very different roles

  • in the societies than here in the States.

  • And at Harvard, I think I read somewhere that you wrote a paper that the prof said was the

  • outstanding paper that he had read. What was that paper on, for your Master’s?

  • Well, the paper was on Saudi Arabian defense concepts, and my professor, really a very,

  • very distinguished Middle Eastern historian and political scientist, Nadav Safran, just a

  • remarkable manhe steered me towards trying to understand better what the Saudis based their

  • decision making on with regard to how they spent their money for defense, what their priorities

  • were, what their problems were, how much of it was related to internal versus external politics,

  • etc. And so, having an opportunity to do that research, and also having been in Saudi Arabia

  • when I was Jordanone thing about being in Jordan, I had the chance to travel all over the

  • Middle East and I literally traveled all over the Arab world and had a chance to see how things

  • were done in many countries in different ways.

  • Help us understand now what are the skills required for being an effective soldier these

  • days. The criterion have changed in the course of your career, and it’s very complicated now,

  • isn’t it?

  • Well, it gets more complicated as you go up the rank ladder, but early on, the single most

  • important thing, and throughout your career the single most important thing, is to be able to lead

  • people. It’s so vital that you understand people, that youre able to convince them to do tough

  • and difficult things, and of course, in combat American soldiers don’t take the hill because

  • theyre afraid of you. They take the hill because they respect their comrades and because they

  • respect their leaders, and they know that theyve got to take the hill in order to get the job done.

  • So, throughout your career youre always having to deal with issues of leadership and that’s

  • critically important. But as you go higher through the ranks, we talk about the world as being

  • tactical or operational or strategic, and you find yourself going through these various levels ofcommand. As a young

  • officer it’s tactical, how do you take the hill, then you get operational and

  • you start using bigger units, and then ultimately, when you became, say, like I was, the

  • Commander of the Central Command, it’s strategic and youre having to advise the President of

  • the United States, Secretary of Defense, to the best of you ability. And so, as you progress

  • through this ladder of changing circumstances youve got to be more culturally aware, youve

  • got to be able to understand the broader civilian society, youve got to understand how our

  • broader government works, how non-governmental organizations work, how alliances work. No

  • American officer who’s ever served in combat since, really – I can hardly think when it was,

  • maybe the Spanish-American Warwithout being part of an alliance. And it’s pretty interesting

  • when you think about it. Were always working in an international environment, were always

  • working with other countries, we work within the NATO alliance, we work within the United

  • Nations. But throughout my career it’s always been a broad exposure, in increasingly broad

  • exposure, towards working with different cultures, different problems and different international

  • organizations. And I think that allows you to grow, and of course, you also have increasingly

  • complex organizations that you have to command, although the interesting things is that one of

  • the toughest things to command is your first platoon. Youve only got somewhere between 30

  • and 40 people there but theyre the first 30 or 40 people youve ever led, and learning how to

  • lead there is absolutely essential to success.

  • Explain to our audience what the Central Command is and what territory you covered,

  • because it’s a term that might not be familiar with the general public.

  • The United States military is really given a broad geographic area to operate in. In other

  • words, the entire globe is, in one way or another, covered by a military command. I think people

  • are familiar with the European Command and the Pacific Command, but the Central Command

  • was essentially created in the early days of tension that was developing between the United

  • States and the Soviet Union over the strategic resources of the Middle East and gradually came

  • to encompass 27 different countries that went from the former Soviet Central Asian Republic,

  • starting with Kazakhstan on down through Afghanistan and Pakistan, over and across Iran, the

  • center of the Levant, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan. Interestingly enough, it doesn’t include Israel,

  • does not include Israel, and it includes Saudi Arabia, Yemen, smaller Gulf states, and then it

  • crosses the Suez Canal, goes to Egypt, Sudan, down into Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Kenya.

  • It’s a very, very dynamic area. It’s an area where the richest nations on earth exist and the

  • poorest nations exist. It’s primarily an Islamic area but it’s an area where there’s constant

  • turmoil, terrorism, insurgency, and of course, it’s the area that the world depends upon for the

  • global flow of oil. So, it’s a very, very interesting area, and it doesn’t mean, by the way, that

  • when youre assigned 27 countries that you own them, you certainly don’t, but any military

  • operation that would take place there, whether it’s people that work in an embassy, or people that

  • work on training military forces in a particular country, or big military operations such as Iraq or

  • Afghanistan, you have the responsibility to direct and coordinate and synchronize. And I would

  • also finish by saying that these operational areas are not just Army areas, theyre Army, Navy,

  • Air Force, Marine Corps, and you are responsible generally for synchronizing those four services

  • as a joint commander and synchronizing the international forces that work with you. And I think

  • people sometimes lose sight of the fact that there are many, many different countries that work

  • with us. As a matter of fact, in my headquarters in the Central Command there were over 80 different nations

  • represented there with military liaison officers, just to give you an idea about

  • how broadly international the effort was.

  • Explain to us how you interface with the other parts of the U.S. Government in that region.

  • In the region you interface with the ambassadors almost on a daily basis, and because of

  • your position as a high military leader of the United States and because youre regionally based,

  • you become a person that frequently talks to the leaders of the region, President Musharraf,

  • President Karzai, the prime minister of Iraq, you name it, you have access and opportunity to talk

  • to them. Primarily you talk to the military officers, of course, but over time you also find

  • yourself getting to know the kings and sheiks, and other key leaders of the region. You also

  • interface with the U.S. Government in Washington. So, for example, you have to conduct

  • meetings in your own area to organize the U.S. Government effort to the extent that you can, you

  • also have to deal frequently with the Central Intelligence Agency, and the other intelligence

  • agencies, to understand what’s going on. But back in Washington there’s an interagency process

  • that’s going on and you are frequently represented in the interagency. But most importantly,

  • what youre trying to do is organize the military forces under your command, and for example, in

  • my command, the Central Command had the multinational force in Iraq’s commander who was a

  • four-star commander that worked for me, the commander in Afghanistan who currently is a fourstar

  • commanderhe also would work for me, although the command relationships have changed

  • over time, and we had a small command in Djibouti in the Horn of Africaworked under my

  • command, and then there were Navy, Air Force, Special Operations commands that were

  • regional commands that reported to me, as well. So, it’s a complex organization, it’s a big

  • organization. At its height it was probably 350,000 Americans and another 500,000, or so,

  • partner nations, partner forces that were participating, and currently it’s probably closer to

  • 250,000.

  • If you were asked to brief the next president, not the top secret part, but just kind of give

  • him the lay of the land, what do you see as the problems emerging in this area? And a lot of our

  • problems, or things that were going to have to address or find solutions for, will be coming from

  • that area.

  • I would tell the President, “Look, Mr. President, you need not to only worry about Iraq, and

  • you need to not only worry about Afghanistan. Certainly they are immediate problems that

  • weve got to be concerned with but you need to look at the broader regional problems and the

  • broader ideological movements that are in the area.” And the first thing I’d say is that there is a

  • very serious ideological movement that is a Sunni extremist, Sunni Islamic extremist movement

  • led by Osama bin Laden and exemplified by al-Qaeda that is a movement that certainly isn’t

  • mainstream yet in the Middle East, but it’s just not a group of terrorists, it’s a movement, it’s an

  • idea, and we need to understand that that idea is implacably opposed to American presence and

  • indeed seeks to dominate the region with a form of religious extremism that most people in the

  • region don’t want to be ascendant. Then I’d say the next big problem is the rise of Iranian Shia

  • revolutionary ideology, and again, it’s an ideological religious movement that is, again,

  • implacably opposed to American involvement in the region, yet at the same time one that may

  • not be at the beginning of its ideological life, such as al-Qaeda, but one that the people of Iran

  • are probably getting tired of, and that you will have to watch Iranian attempts to dominate the region and counter

  • them in a way that makes sense over time. The third point I would tell him is

  • that while were not using our own military forces daily in the Arab/Israelibetter said,

  • Israeli/Palestinian theater, that you have to understand that the continued corrosive effect of this

  • problem is creating a dynamic where people move to the extremes and it makes the region very,

  • very unstable. And then the final fourth big problem that I would make sure he understands is

  • that one of the reasons were so heavily engaged in the Middle East that none of us can deny is

  • our continued dependence on Middle Eastern oil, and in order to gain diplomatic, and political,

  • and military maneuver room we need to figure out how to reduce our dependence over time,

  • knowing that there’s no easy solution to this, on the flow of Middle Eastern oil. And clearly,

  • American military power has to confront Sunni Islamic extremism, it has to contain Iranian

  • ambitions. Diplomatic power, political power has to do what it can to move the Arab/Israeli

  • process forward, but ultimately it’s the American military shield that keeps the flow of oil

  • moving, and it should come as no surprise to us that our enemies are trying to disrupt that

  • movement. And when I sayour enemies” I don’t want it to sound as if this is American

  • domination because it’s not. American military power keeps the flow of oil going not just for the

  • United States of America but for our friends, and our allies, and the producing nations.

  • So, what you just described raises a question about distinguishing between non-state actors

  • and states like Iran that are adversaries, or potential adversaries. Talk a little about what we have

  • to do to deal with two different kinds of problems, although they both may pose threats.

  • That’s a very interesting question, especially with regard to al-Qaeda, because as youve

  • clearly said, it is a non-state phenomenon and unfortunately it may be the beginning of the way

  • things are going to be in the 21st century where we deal a lot more with super-empowered nonstate

  • actors, and al-Qaedayou have to give them credit for what theyve achieved. I have no

  • admiration for them but on the other hand, theyve managed to attack us at home, theyve

  • managed to attack, really, in a broad range of countries around the world in a way that’s brought

  • their cause to the attention of many, they recruit, they train, they proselytize, they organize on the

  • virtual space in the internet in a way that’s very, very sophisticated, very dangerous, and yet they

  • purvey an ideology that really isn’t very popular with the people in the region. It’s a very

  • extreme form of Islam. As a matter of fact, most of my Islamic friends said, don’t even use the

  • wordIslamin the same sentence withal-Qaeda,” but the problem is that al-Qaeda views itself

  • as a religious organization in its extreme, but it bases itself religiously. And so, you know, you