Monday evening at a meeting of the Pacific Council, retired General John Abizaid, the former commander of the US Central Command for Iraq and Afghanistan from 2003-2007, offered lots of wisdom and an impressive analysis of the Middle East. In this election season, every American, including Barack Obama and John McCain, should hear what he has to say.
ON IRAN: Although he didn't say it outright, General Abizaid's implicit view seemed to be that the world would not be able to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and that we would have to learn to live with it. He questioned whether war with Iran to stop that eventuality would be a wise idea "at this particular time" not only because world oil flows would be shut down and turmoil would spread across the Middle East where Iran's Shia allies hold sway, but also because the US armed forces lacked strategic flexibility, bogged down as they are in Iraq and Afghanistan with "our ground forces tapped out."
What, then, when they get the bomb? "I don't believe Iran is a suicide state," he said. "Deterrence will work with Iran. It is a country of many different power centers that are competing. Despite what their crazy president says, I doubt seriously whether the Iranians are interested in starting a nuclear war." As for the Israelis, Abizaid said "they can take care of themselves up to a point...." but "we and the Israelis are going to have to have a very clear conversation about what we will do if the Iranians develop and field a weapon. Over the next 20 years the relationship will have to go from a de-facto alliance to one of an unmistakable alliance." In other words, the US should extend its nuclear shield over Israel.
We should be talking to Iran, according to Abizaid, just the way we talked to our other enemies in the past. "We need to make it very clear to the Iranians, the same way we made it clear to the Soviet Union and China, that their first use of nuclear weapons would result in the devastation of their nation."
ON IRAQ: "Iraq is likely to stabilize sooner than Afghanistan," Abizaid predicted. Combat activity is down dramatically in the last four or five months. By the time the US presidential transfer takes place in January, the Iraqis, in his view, will be close to getting their act together. "The Iraqis have moved beyond the American political debate. We can't be in Iraq more than the Iraqis want us to be there."
ADVICE TO THE CANDIDATES: Abizaid advised Obama and McCain to focus "on strategy instead of brigades," recognizing that all the key issues in the region -- Sunni non-state extremism, Shiite radicalism of the Iranian nation-state, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and US dependence on Middle East oil -- had to be dealt with in a comprehensive and linked way with the help of the international community. The US can't do it alone; military might can't do it alone.
Seeming to question Obama's idea of shifting brigades to Afghanistan, Abizaid echoed what Afghan president Hamid Karzai told me in January: the problem with Al Qaeda's resurgence is not in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan. "We've seen Al-Qaida weakened in Iraq but its growing presence in the Pakistani territories along the Afghan border and in the horn of Africa," according to Abizaid. "In terms of confronting Al Qaeda, the problem we face today is in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. It is not as if there is a roiling insurgency taking place in Afghanistan. Its stability depends on what happens in the Pashtun areas of Pakistan."
In the longer term, by Abizaid's analysis, Iraq and Afghanistan are not the key problems. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are. "Pakistan is a nuclear-armed state that is unstable. In Saudi Arabia, the fight between the ruling famliy and the clerical class has yet to play itself out. The clerical class' theological frame is essentially Osama bin Laden's ideology."
LIMITS OF AMERICAN POWER. On the limits of American power, Abizaid said that the US had to recognize that the Middle East was embroiled "in the first battle of globalization" between the modernizers and the religious-zealots who aspire to a global Caliphate. The US Is only a secondary player in this civilizational strife that will unfold over a very long period. "As the British, the Russians and the Israelis found out, " you can't control the Middle East."
Instead, "we need to move from direct to indirect influence" in the region, focusing more on nation-building (he didn't use that word, though) than overwhelming military might; not on building "Swiss-style democracy" but a modicum of accountability by governments in the region.
"We have to understand," he said, "that our culture is not going to be adopted by their culture. The only question is how we shape cultural outcomes that will allow people to live together in peace and prosperity so that we and our allies are not threatened by religious-inspired zealots."
LESSONS FROM MISTAKES. Finally, this general properly obsessed with culture offered a candid view of the conceptual errors that led to the debacle of the pre-emptive war in Iraq. "There was a universal transfer of cultural norms that took place in Washington, " Abizaid lamented. "They thought that this was the liberation of France as opposed to going in to a Middle Eastern state rife with ethnic divisions, in other words, an unrealistic liberation philosophy based on our cultural expectations from the outcome of World War II."
"During the Cold War," Abizaid continued, "there were many thousands of experts the military could call on to tell us the size of the underwear worn by a member of the Soviet Politburo. When I sought experts to advise the Central Command, there were less than 300. There was a huge cultural gap. So, we made some of the initial decisions in the war based on not understanding their culture."