The Wheatley Institution

America's Strategic Challenges in the Middle East and Central Asia

General John P. Abizaid
November 11, 2010

Related Videos

Abdul Aziz Said

Islamic-Western Peacemaking: Partnerships for a Better World
Abdul Aziz Said

February 8, 2011


Amaney Jamal

Successes & Failures Since the Arab Spring
Amaney Jamal

February 25, 2015


Cas Mudde

Why Should We Study Populism?
Cas Mudde

January 29, 2016


Click here to view the transcript
Click here to hide the transcript

Thank you General Amos [Jordan], I appreciate that kind introduction. President Samuelson, thank you. Thanks for allowing me to be here. Richard [Williams], thank you very much for the invitation to come here.

To the Air Force ROTC cadets, the sea of blue over there—where are you? Yes, I really think you should leave, because you beat Army last week, and I'm still smarting from that; it's cost me a lot of money. Army ROTC cadets, where are you? Good to see you, Army ROTC cadets, we've lost to the Navy seven years in a row, right? Well, this should be it. How's everything in the Army ROTC? Is this a voluntary attendance for you tonight? Of course, yes sir, it is!  Air Force cadets, is it voluntary for you? (Answers: "Yes, sir.") Excellent.

I'm very honored to be here at BYU, and I'm happy to be here to talk to you about a very interesting subject and discuss what's going on in the modern Middle East. It's something that all of us need to pay attention to. It's been a long war for a long time, and unfortunately it probably will continue to be a long struggle for a long time. The shape of it may change in many different and dramatic ways, but it will be pretty interesting nonetheless.

How many of you are veterans? If you're a veteran, just raise your hand. Let's give our veterans a round of applause on Veteran's Day.

The most important thing I'm going to say to you tonight is that, were it not for our veterans, we wouldn't have the freedom and the liberty to do what we do in this great country of ours. From 1775 until today, and hopefully deep into the future, our veterans will keep us free. They'll protect our liberties, and they'll insure that our grandchildren have a chance for peace and prosperity. It's essential that this service to the nation continues in whatever form.

For those of you that choose to serve the nation in uniform, in whatever service it may be, thank you very much. For those of you that have already served the nation, thank you very much. But also, for those of you who serve humanity in whatever way you choose, thank you very much. As we move into the latter half of the 21st century, we're going to need all the help we can get. Those of you that are dedicated to service, as so many of you are here at BYU, I want to thank you for that and hope that you will continue to do that. The country needs you, the world needs you, and service to your fellow man and your fellow woman out there is of great importance.  

Are there any University of Utah graduates in attendance? Yes? So I'm from the state of Nevada, your neighbors. I'm a Nevadan. And I think that Nevada is to Utah as the University of Utah is to BYU. Would that be a fair approximation? I think so. I'm from Gardnerville, Nevada. Many military officers, when they retire from the service, decide to go to Washington, D.C. I decided to go away from Washington, D.C. for reasons that you can probably appreciate. But when I go there, people always say, "Why did you retire in Nevada?" And I say, "Well there are a lot of mountains there; it snows out there; I'm from northern Nevada, and it's a beautiful area." It's not unlike this area out here. After a while, they just don't understand, so finally I say, "Look. You know, I spent a lot of time in the Afghan-Pakistan border area, and Nevada reminds me of Waziristan." I say, "You know, the people there are heavily armed, they all hate the federal government, a certain amount of drugs are going across the Nevada-California border, and if I ever look for something to do, as a retired general, there are plenty of militias that I can deal with."

That's the best I can do, and usually after I tell them that, they leave me alone. But look, I'm not here to talk about Nevada, I'm not here to talk about the University of Utah, and I'm not here to talk about this great culture of service at BYU and this wonderful university and this great state. I'm here to talk about something that we all need to talk about, and we all need to understand: to try to come to grips with a little bit better understanding of the big dynamics that are at play in the Middle East.

You probably wonder, what is it that a general officer does out there? I wasn't the commander in Iraq; I wasn't the commander in Afghanistan. I was the commander of an area of 27 countries that went from Kazakhstan (that was made famous by the great movie Borat) on down through Pakistan and Afghanistan, over across Iran, the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant countries, down across Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Kenya. It's a very large area, a very difficult area, and one that is in constant turmoil. It's one that we had been fighting in well before 2001, and an area that we have to pay attention to and will have to pay attention to for a long time to come.

So I'd like to tell you a little story about this area to give you a little bit of context on how things work when you're a senior military officer, a four-star general. You have your own airplane. You have your own staff. You ask your staff after you give a speech like this and say, "How did I do?" and they all look at you and they say, "Oh man. That was great. That was unbelievable. What a home run!" Now, the only person I have hanging around with me these days is my wife, and she'll say, "Why did you say that?" So you think you're important, and then you find out that you're not so important.

But anyway, when I was in command of this area, of the countries that I described to you, two countries traditionally were not part of it; they were Lebanon and Syria.  My boss was Secretary Rumsfeld. Many of you have read in various Woodward books and in different media that Secretary Rumsfeld was a hard boss, that he didn't talk to us, and that we were all afraid of him. So I thought it'd probably be good to give you a story about how life was between him and me at a particular time.

He called me up one day and said, "General Abizaid, I understand from looking at a map here of your area that you do not have responsibility for Lebanon and Syria. I would like your opinion of that." So I said, "Mr. Secretary, we've got war in Iraq and war in Afghanistan. We have smuggling operations off the coast of Somalia, piracy, terrorism endemic in every one of these countries, and war liable to break out in four or five others. So all things considered, I do not want Syria and Lebanon added to my portfolio." And he said, "Thank you very much, General. You have them."

I said, "Okay, while you're at it, please give me Haiti and North Korea." Fortunately for me, he did not. But the real points that we need to talk about here tonight are: what keeps us so involved in the Middle East? What are the dynamics at play in this particular part of the world that cause us to spend billions of dollars and the lives of our young men and women in combat there, combat which has been going on for the past nine years and will continue to go on for a while? We have to always think about who they are and what they represent and what they do for our nation in these difficult places, especially on a day like today, Veteran's Day.

The Middle East is a complicated place. It is, in many respects, at war with itself more than it is at war with us. The home of the three greatest religions on earth--Christianity, Judaism, and Islam--can never seem to settle down. 5,000 years of history punctuated with lots of violence. There's no reason to expect, as we look 5,000 years ahead, that it's going to calm down.

We, as the greatest nation on earth, have been brought into the Middle Eastern crucible time and time again since the end of the Second World War. For the last nine years we have been fighting there in very difficult circumstances, trying to stabilize Iraq and trying to stabilize Afghanistan. When you look at our media, it's so evident that people want to focus on things that they can understand. They want to focus on what's happening in Baghdad. They want to focus on what's happening in Kabul. But they don't ever try to connect the issues that are at play, that were at play well before President Bush became the President of the United States and will be at play well after President Obama is no longer the President of the United States.

It's a difficult part of the world where the main religion of the region, Islam, is trying to come to grips with its future in this globalizing planet of ours. Where will they be? Will they globalize in the direction that the United States and the West seem to set for the rest of the planet? Or will they move according to their own culture? Do they have to reform their culture in a way that allows them to be more resilient against the threats that they see coming from places such as the United States, Western Europe, and the other developing countries that are around them?

Their struggle trying to understand where they are is not unlike the struggle that Christianity went through in the Reformation period, where differences about religion and differences about interpretation of religion came to play in a way that is extremely important for us to understand.

The United States of America plays a central role in peace in the Middle East, but also in conflict in the Middle East. How can we put this in context? How ought we to think about it?

What I'd like to do tonight is talk at a higher level, let's call it the strategic level, to try to understand the big issues at play: not what's going on downtown in Baghdad, not what's happening in the streets of Cairo, but the big strategic issues at play that keep us involved there and make our lives so challenging in these very interesting times that we live in.

I begin by noting that there are four major strategic issues at play that of which we need to have some general understanding. First and foremost, the one that I think is the most difficult for us to grasp, sometimes the most uncomfortable for us to even talk about, is the rise of Sunni Islamic extremism. Sunni Islamic extremism, as exemplified by people such as Osama bin Laden, and organizations such as Al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba, or countless other organizations that are in the region using terrorism as a tactic, represents an ideological movement that we need to pay attention to.

We often think about the problem of 9/11 coming about from a small group of people that happened to be hiding out in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, a small group that are extremists to the point where nobody would ever follow them. They managed to put a series of planes in the sky and attack us here on our homeland. They got lucky at that particular time, and it caused us then to react in military operations.

But in truth, this ideology of Islamic extremism, as exemplified by Al-Qaeda, is something that we need to pay close attention to. If you want to know what they stand for, you don't need to take it from me. You merely need to get on the internet and go to some of their websites to see what they say. They want to remove American power from the region. Why? So they can defeat and dominate the United States? Eventually, yes. But for the short run, they want us to leave the region so that they can come to grips with what they regard as the illegitimate leadership of the Islamic nations in the region. They will defeat them once we depart. They'll put their ideology in place. The extremists' ideology will become ascendant (because, after all, it's the right ideology), and they'll manage to figure out how, eventually, to spread this--not only in the greater Islamic world, but throughout the planet.

Again, it's hard sometimes to try to understand what they believe. I've talked to these people. I've been around them for many, many years, and I've talked to people that we've captured in combat to try to understand what motivates them. It's clear to me that in their own way, despite the tactics that they use, they're courageous, they're organized, they're determined, they're ferocious, and they‘ll stop at nothing to achieve their aims.

In nine years of war, the greatest military power on earth has failed to subdue them, and their ideology, while under pressure, still manages to attract adherence and is probably more widespread today than it was before 9/11. It's a very important point for us to consider.

By the way, the leadership of Al-Qaeda doesn't happen to be a bunch of poor, oppressed, young people. These are older doctors, lawyers, and professional people--moneyed classes who believe that, in order for their society to move forward in the way they want it to move forward in the 21st century, their ideology must triumph, and they're prepared to fight for it.

It is remarkable that a movement without a geographical center, without a nation-state in support of it, has managed to attack us at home, here in the United States, to attack in Britain, to attack in Indonesia, to attack in nearly every Middle Eastern state, in Spain, in France, in all the North African countries, down into Africa, most recently down into Kenya, and over and across into Turkey. Never before has there been a movement without a geographic base, without a nation-state behind it, that's managed to exert such military activity on the planet. It is a deadly movement, it is a very serious movement, and it's one that almost none of us really know much about or have bothered to study.

If I were to put up a list of pictures of the top 10 war criminals from World War II, from Nazi Germany to Imperial Japan, many of you in the audience could probably name about half of them. If I were to put the same number of pictures up of the key leadership of Al-Qaeda, who we've been fighting for nine years, you could probably identify bin Laden and maybe Zawahiri, but after that I'd say the numbers would trail off.

It is amazing to me that in nine years of war, we have done so little to understand our enemy, to understand what they represent, what they stand for, and what they're trying to do so that we can precisely combat them, as opposed to cutting a wide swath using military power on a broad brush throughout the greater Middle East.

What does this ideology look like when it does come to fore, as it has in certain places? Where is it operating today? Today we see it not only in Iraq and Afghanistan--we also see it in Pakistan, and it is extraordinarily dangerous there. We see it in Saudi Arabia, we see it in Sudan. We see it in Somalia, we see it in certain places in the Levant, across North Africa, and into some of the Muslim areas of South Asia. When they take over areas, they immediately start calling the particular geographical area that they've taken over, if only for short periods, a caliphate. It could be Fallujah in Iraq, Kandahar in Afghanistan, or it could be the empire of the Taliban state in Afghanistan before 9/11.

When this ideology is in charge, what does it look like in practice? Well, people can come to the soccer stadiums to see executions. They know that music is banned. They understand that women have no place whatsoever in public policy, education, or anything. Women are excluded from the society. The Koran is so strictly interpreted that life is joyless, but people turn to this in desperation and out of a sense of hopelessness that their governments can provide the services and security that they need for a better future.

So this movement continues to spread, but there is a good news part of this. The good news is that the vast majority of Muslims do not want this ideology to become ascendant. And when faced with it against the legitimate governments in the region, they fight pretty hard against it. They don't want this ideology to win.

So the challenge for us, as we face the ideology, is not only how to protect ourselves, but how to help the people in the region help themselves against this very difficult challenge. Strategic challenge number one: the rise of Sunni Islamic extremism. By the way, my Muslim friends hate for me to even use the words Sunni, Islamic, and extremist together, but if you see how the enemy describes themselves, they use these words, they pervert the Koran, and they use religious symbolism to talk about where they're moving, how they're moving, and what they're going to do. It is a religious movement. For us to pretend otherwise, for us to think that it's not unified in an international, global, and clever way in the internet space would be a grave mistake on our part.

Number two is Shia Islamic extremism, which is a lot different from--in fact, completely opposed to--Sunni Islamic extremism. If there were no presence of the United States in the region, they'd probably fight each other in a way that would be even more ferocious and vicious than it already has been. Shia Islamic extremism is exemplified by the rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the revolutionary government that came to power there in 1979. It is a very stern and difficult form of Islam that they practice and impose upon the great people of that country.

Iran is a big country with a lot of resources. It has a military that's very large and capable. Iran has the ability to use other Shia communities around the globe to do its bidding, as it has done in southern Lebanon, eastern Saudi Arabia, central Afghanistan, parts of Pakistan, and elsewhere. Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon. There is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that they want to develop a nuclear weapon because their ultimate goal is to be the number one power in the most important economic area on earth: the Persian Gulf. They will do so by intimidation, by terrorism, and by military confrontation.

Like Sunni extremists, their great desire is to push American power out of the region. They must push American power out of the region in order to establish an area in which they can operate and achieve their hegemonic ambitions. Sunni Islamic extremism has its counterpart in Shia Islamic extremism.

Issue number three is the continued corrosive effect of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It continues to move towards the possibility of yet another war in the Middle East. How many more could we have between the Israelis and the Arabs? How much more blood can be shed between the Israelis and the Palestinians? This corrosive conflict between Israelis and Palestinians creates a dynamic that causes people to lose faith that the middle will hold. They start to move towards the extremes.

For the Muslims, sometimes the extremes mean moving towards organizations such as Al-Qaeda, or moving towards nations such as Iran for support and direction. For the Israelis, it means constant harassment, suicide bombing, and difficulty within the area that they hope to live in. It is so important that the corrosion of the Arab-Israeli conflict be taken off the broader table of conflict in the Middle East if we are to move forward there positively in the 21st century.

We've talked about Sunni Islamic extremism and Shia Islamic extremism, and the corrosive effect of the Arab-Israeli Conflict. To that I'll add the fourth strategic dynamic, and that's the continued reliance of the United States of America on Middle Eastern oil--not just the continued reliance of the United States of America on Middle Eastern oil, but the continued reliance of the global economy on Middle Eastern oil.

It was apparent back in the days when I was a young officer, in 1973, when we went through our first great oil shock, that this flow of oil was not going to be certain, regardless of how many fighters or navy ships we had patrolling the skies and the waterways of the Arabian gulf in that particular part of the world. This over-reliance on Middle Eastern oil puts us in a position to have to react to almost every geopolitical threat that is caused by the various nation-states in the region. In fact, it causes us to react quicker, with more power than we would if something happened in Europe, Africa, or Asia, in a way that I think is readily apparent from what we've been going through, not only over the past nine years, but since the end of the Second World War.

Now, it would be irresponsible of me to put up these four problems without talking about what I think we might be able to do about them. But before I walk away from these four problems--the reliance on oil, Sunni and Shia extremism, and the corrosive effect of the Arab-Israeli conflict--we need to understand that there are some accelerants out there that can make all of these very bad very quickly if we don't pay attention to them.

One of the most important accelerants that we need to pay attention to is the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region. Already, India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons. It's probably evident to most by looking at the non-classified media that the Israelis have nuclear weapons. Certainly the Iranians are trying to produce nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons in an inherently unstable area, where terrorism is endemic, create a nightmare not just for the people in the region. They create a dynamic for a potential larger-scale nation-state nuclear showdown as weapons proliferate to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, and the other larger countries in the region.

But more important, nuclear weapons in unstable states, such as Pakistan and potentially Iran, create a dynamic where our worst nightmare can be true: that they would use a weapon against our interests, our allies, or our country if they can figure out how to deliver it here. Now, do I think this is something that could happen tomorrow? No. But when I was a young officer, it was unthinkable. Today, it is unfortunately more thinkable than it used to be.

So this dynamic of nuclear weapons, of weapons of mass destruction, even though we didn't find any in the sense that we were looking for them in Iraq, is one of the key reasons that we have to really pay careful attention to what's going on in the middle of the Middle East.

As you go forward, you have to come to grips with these issues. What is it that we have to do? How should we behave in the region? Can we continue to provide military forces deep in to the latter half of the 21st century the way we have indefinitely? Clearly, if you look at our fiscal situation, you will come to the conclusion that we cannot. We must find an affordable strategy going forward, and it cannot be hundreds of thousands of troops operating indefinitely, in areas where people do not necessarily welcome them or want them to operate.

Ultimately, we have to do what we have started to do in both Iraq and Afghanistan and take the only logical course for us, which is to arm the great, good people of the region against this ideology that's operating in such a terrible way out there. We need to give them the means through training—training of military forces, training of counter-terrorist forces, the ability to use our intelligence in a way that makes sense for them within their cultural context--where we can precisely target terrorist nodes. This shifting the balance of us being in the lead militarily to them being in the lead militarily is absolutely essential because the only people capable of defeating Islamic extremism in the region are the good people of the region themselves. It is essential that we move forward in a way that we help them help themselves.

But at the same time, we can't let up the pressure on these terrorist nodes as they exist. You too often hear, in the political discourse in the United States, this notion that we either stay or we leave. If only it were that simple! It's not just about staying or leaving; it's about finding a path forward that continues to suppress the terrorist activity and moves towards their eventual dissolution because they no longer have a friendly sea in which to swim. That's the only rational way that we can move forward, but it will require military force and intelligence power to continue to be generated against these terrorist nodes, not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in other places that we find them, whether it's Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, or the next country that was unexpected that they happen to show up in.

Now, again, it doesn't mean hundreds of thousands of troops for hundreds of years, but it does mean a commitment of American force, American prestige, and American power in an affordable way against these extremist nodes when we find them and how we find them.

With regard to Iran, you will not ever hear me say, "It's time to go to war with Iran." No soldier that I know of has ever looked for war. We have always urged our civilian leadership that when you make the decision, let's make it on the basis of the last resort. Certainly Iran creates a threat for us. Even worse, it creates a terrible threat for our Israeli friends and allies in the region, the only legitimate democratic state in the region. But, just as certainly, we shouldn't reach for our weapons before we've allowed diplomacy, economic activity, intelligence activity, and educational activity to work through the problems that are clear within Iran.

Iran is a divided place. The majority of the people don't like the government. Given time, the government will fall to a very rich and very capable culture that doesn't like the suppression that it has felt under this Iranian leadership. It's so important for us to figure out how to enable that movement without having to go to war with Iran, because the last thing we need in the region is yet a third war, where hundreds of thousands of troops and billions and billions of dollars would have to be expanded. This does not mean that we are unprepared to deal with the Iranians, should the last resort arise. But it's very important that we work with our friends and allies in the region to contain their power, and we look for ways to help the legitimate resistance of the Iranian people get rid of the government that no longer responds to their desires and wishes.

With regard to the Arab-Israeli problem, I would say that, at least in this administration, for the first time that I can ever remember, within the first year of office, they have attacked the issue with great élan. Whether or not they will be successful remains to be seen, but they have established a perception and a desire to bring this problem to the table to find resolution where a unified Israel that is democratic in nature can continue to exist in peace in the region, and a Palestinian state can be found next to them in a way that respects the rights and the dignity of the Palestinian people. It's been a very, very difficult thing, but to continue to allow this corrosive conflict to move in a bad direction would be criminal for all of us.     

Finally, with regard to oil, it would seem to me that it's about time that we figure out how to reduce our dependence on Middle Eastern oil—through conservation, through new discoveries, through new technologies, through whatever means we need--because to continue to be held in the handcuffs of geopolitical action that essentially sets the tempo for our activity in the region by other countries is no longer making any sense.

I was the director of strategic plans and policies on the joint staff when September 11th happened in 2001. And at that time, we were absolutely the richest, most powerful, most capable nation on earth, capable of spending whatever resources we needed to spend, and facing no competition whatsoever in the world or the region. Today, as we have arrived in 2010, we can no longer contemplate unconstrained resource spending, nor can we contemplate that we won't have competition out there. Competition is rising in China; competition is rising in other parts of the planet. It doesn't mean that it will necessarily be military, but it certainly means that it will be competitive, and in this new relationship, where we move from hyper-power to power, we're going to have to find out how to work with other powers in a responsible way, how to balance power in a difficult region, and how to move forward in a way that makes sense for the people of our great country.

Now, I fought half my career in the Middle East, and I've spent an awful lot of time in an awful lot of dangerous places out there. And as dangerous as it is, and as difficult as it is, and as many different problems as I put on the table for you here today, I never hesitate to go back there to try to figure out a way to move forward. How do we help the economies in the region diversify away from oil dependency? How do we put angry young men to work? How do we put the great amount of wealth that is flowing from our part of the world to their part of the world to work in a way that's positive for them and us, so that we diminish the chances of extremism ever becoming mainstream?

Bin Laden has a narrative of the world, and the narrative of the world is that Western Christian civilization and Islam will have a great battle, and in that great battle, Islam will be ascendant. But his vision of what Islam represents is not what it is. His vision is that the corruption of his extremist ideas will be triumphant and will be allowed to become ascendant. But we have to resist the notion that we are already in that battle of civilizations. What we are trying to do is prevent it.

Not only have I, by the way, fought half my life in the Middle East, but so have my son, my son-in-law, and my daughter. In fact, my son-in-law has fought many more months of combat duty in the Middle East in places like Iraq and Afghanistan (including being wounded by a suicide car bomb in his vehicle, where several of his own soldiers were killed) than my father did in World War II. He's got about 20 more months of combat duty under his belt than my dad did in World War II, and my dad fought from 1942 to 1945. It is my hope that his kids, my grandkids, won't have to face combat in the Middle East. But unless we take these challenges seriously and find realistic ways to form a strategy that is not dependent on the two-year congressional cycle but on the long-term interests of our country, then we're in for more and rougher seas.

Now I believe, having seen our young troops, our great diplomats, our terrific intelligence people, and our other very, very good friends and allies in the region work against these problems, that there are many more people willing to put their shoulder to the wheel out there than we regard as being out there here at home. They are good people, capable people, courageous people, patient people, and we'll need patience and courage to back their efforts, to come up with a strategy that allows us to move forward and at the same time solve our problems at home.

We will not be able to withdraw from the world. We're too great of a power for that. If we do not lead in the broader world, even as we solve our problems ahead and our problems at home, we'll live in a very dark world. Despite the very pessimistic things I have said to you today, I have only the greatest confidence in our ability to shoulder these burdens and to solve these problems, if first we take the time to understand, second, take the time to be involved, and third, get behind the efforts necessary to be successful, not only there but at home. It will take less and less political bickering, and more and more pulling together, to do that, and I think we can do it.

In closing, I'd like to say that it's a great honor to be here at BYU. We're going to have ample time for questions. All questions are good, even if I don't want to answer them. By the way, I've testified before the Senate of the United States, so I have been trained to avoid questions, but seriously—any questions. I've talked to you about the future; you might want to talk to me about the past. We've got many problems that I think are worth exploring, so I'd like to invite an army ROTC cadet (if you don't walk up there, I will pick you) to the mic to ask the first question. And then anybody else, please line up behind him and let's have a dialogue. Thank you very much.

General Jordan: General, while they're getting up their courage, let me ask a question. You've talked about the long war. I see that the New York Times war correspondent has just published a book called "The Forever War." Do you think that this is, in fact, a forever war?

General Abizaid: No. No, I don't think it's a forever war. I think it's a long war. I think that global information systems have created a dynamic not only in the Middle East, but throughout the entire planet, where people have a chance to see how the world is improving, and they want their families and their cultures to be part of it. And so the dynamic to me is more towards the optimistic side of a planet that's trying to globalize on terms that we can recognize. So I think that, ultimately, this ideology of bin Laden in particular, is so evil that it will not be successful because there's such a major effort within the region, which a lot of people don't appreciate, to fight it. Our challenge is to figure out how to fight it more effectively, more affordably, and in a way that involves less money and fewer troops. And I believe we can do that, and I think you'll find that when we apply fewer troops in particular areas, that will have good effects with the local people.

Thank you, General Jordan, for that question. (I had to answer his question—he's my military superior.)

Question: Thank you for coming, sir. The question I had sir, was you said that Shia extremism is very different from the Sunni extremism, but you didn't really elaborate on that. I was wondering if you could elaborate more on the differences, since they both appear to be repressive and possess a very strict interpretation of the Koran.

General Abizaid: Well, we have to go back to the beginning--and I don't want to get into theology because I'm not a theologist, I'm a soldier--but I would say that the difference between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam are pretty profound. They're profound theologically, they're profound in practice, and they're profound in interpretation of the Koran. They're profoundly different in the way that religion is interpreted as the basis for law within the various communities, and it's very interesting, in Iraq in particular, that the differences between Sunni and Shia, upon the liberation of Iraq, became so starkly exposed. Sunni and Shia communities have been at conflict and at odds in the Islamic world ever since the foundation of Islam in the region, and they're quite different.

Now this doesn't mean that Sunnis and Shias won't cooperate in a way that is difficult for our interests, especially extremists on both sides. They've been known to cooperate. We saw this in the battle of Fallujah and other places in Iraq. We see it in places in Afghanistan. It's unusual, but it's directed against us, trying to remove us from the region. But they are antithetical to one another. It's very difficult for them to live comfortably with one another, and I think as you look at the Iraqi government that's emerging, you'll see a lot of problems ahead as they try to come to grips with the differences theologically. 

Religious parties, unfortunately, have created a dynamic that makes it difficult for secular compromise to take place in Iraq, and I think it has yet to play itself out. So even at this late stage of the game, those of you who think we've won--it's probably too soon to say. Those of you that think we've lost--it's probably too soon to say. But I'm of the opinion that Iraq is much better off without Saddam Hussein no matter what happens.

Question: When General Petraeus came, he spoke on how he felt that US foreign policy relied too much on military. I was wondering: what role will development and any other factor play in bringing peace to the Middle East?

General Abizaid: Thanks, great question. I'll tell you--any nation that relies on too much military power always finds it very difficult to govern the difficult places such as Iraq or Afghanistan. You also have to understand that, to the best of my historical understanding, no foreign, outside power has ever controlled the Middle East.  So policy makers that thought that we could do that were mistaken, not by military methods or by other methods.

The idea is not to control the Middle East; the idea is to figure out how to shape the outcome. So I'm of the opinion that nothing works if it's not accompanied by a certain measure of hard power and soft power. For the past nine years our hard power, our military power, has been in action and on display for all to see. It has achieved good results on the military side, but we need to get away from military action alone—military action alone only buys you time. Settling a nation requires governance, which comes from people that understand how to do that. It requires economic development, and it requires education. It requires all sorts of skills that we have in our government, but which, in my view, have been inexpertly applied. I believe that, in order to move in a way where we help the people in the region help themselves, we've got to get away from our military being in the lead to the softer power, not only of our community but the international community come to the fore.

Question: Tonight you've talked about last resorts, in regards especially to Iran. As far as nuclear policy and the potential for them obtaining a nuclear weapon, what does the last resort look like, and what lessons can the United States apply from the Cold War MAD Doctrine?

General Abizaid: Well first of all, Iran doesn't have a nuclear weapon yet. And when Iran develops a nuclear weapon--let's say that they are going to develop a nuclear weapon, that's certainly their intention—they'll have one, then they'll have two, then they'll have ten over a period of ten, twenty years, or whatever the case may be. They will never, ever be in a position to use those weapons against us without risking the survival of their very existence.

So deterrence, in my view, against Iran will work, as long as it is the United States versus Iran. The problem comes in if you're an Israeli. If you look at the map of Israel and you see the very narrow waist of Israel and the area around Tel Aviv, you realize that even one weapon that goes in there, or two weapons that go in there, could devastate the country and threaten its very existence. So I think if Iran becomes a nuclear state, first of all, you have to establish deterrence. You have to establish deterrence by talking very clearly to them so they understand what happens to them if they use the weapon, and then you need to talk to our Israeli friends about the nature of the American-Israeli reliance on each other and make it much more explicit than it used to be in the past.

This is not something that any Israeli wants to do, but in an era of nuclear weapons, it may be necessary. I'm of the opinion that the historical record is clear: Iran is not a suicide state. They're happy to use suicide bombers, but there's a reason that the Persian culture has existed for as many thousands of years as it has.  It's because they make compromises. They change things internally in order to continue to exist in the region, and they're no fools for being able to operate effectively out there.

This doesn't mean that we treat them with kid gloves. We'll know when it comes to the point when there's no other recourse but military action, but I think we're a long ways from it. I think that military action that comes too soon drives people towards the regime out of fear as opposed to away from the regime. So if we want to hasten the end of the Iranian regime, which is truly the enemy, then we need to apply pressure, contain it, develop clear policies, assure the Israelis, and move forward.

Question: There's a large field of natural gas discovered off the north coast of Israel recently, and the dispute is on the border between Israel and Lebanon, at the Mediterranean sea, and it runs around most of these fields. What is the hope of resolving this border issue in a beneficial manner for both states involved?

General Abizaid: Have you ever been up on the Lebanon-Israeli border? I lived up there for a year. I was in the United Nations, serving in Lebanon, and my family was living in Nahariya, Israel. I'd be out on patrol with the U.N. and the Hezbollah guerillas would point their rockets in the direction of where my family was living. Of course, I was an unarmed observer. I'd go up and talk to them, and I'd say, "Do you think you could move that rocket a little bit over this way?" And they'd say, "Yeah, no problem, we'll take care of that!"

So there are ways of talking to people, but the chances of there being an easy compromise in that part of the world, without there being a solution to this problem between Israelis and Palestinians first, is low. There's another problem that's about to hit the Lebanese scene which will be very, very difficult, and that has to do with the Lebanese U.N. tribunal getting ready to report here soon. And when they report, they're undoubtedly going to point the finger at Hezbollah, which actually acts as a state within a state in the south. When that happens, I think things are going to get difficult.

There's also a dynamic in the region that I didn't talk a lot about, but it's disturbing to me, and that's the pressure that's being placed on the Christian communities. Although the Lebanese Christian community is big enough to fend for itself, the communities in Palestine, Iraq, and other long-standing Christian communities are coming under great pressure from Islamic extremists. By the way, it's an obvious tactic for them to use if they're trying to cause this clash of civilization. So I don't think it will be easily solved. I don't think resources will be easily shared, but on the other hand, I never would have thought that there'd be peace between Egypt and Israel and Jordan and Israel.

There are ways to share resources out there, and in the 21st century, with resources becoming so scarce, there will be more and more effective ways of sharing resources. So that's a good way of saying, like I used to answer the Senate, "I don't know."

Question: You mentioned how the conflicts between the various religious sects in the Middle East is a lot like Western Europe Reformation, and I was wondering, could you even imagine a kind of Peace of Westphalia for the Middle East, and if so, what kind of form would that take? What circumstances would have to surround that?

General Abizaid: I can't imagine that we've come as far as we've come since I was a young officer with regard to certain Arab states being at peace with Israel now. It's really somewhat of a revolutionary sort of activity, but I think that it will take a cataclysm before a peace of a Westphalian sort settles things.

What I worry about is that as the planet globalizes, the extreme forms of religion in many cultures start to move in a very, very negative way. It's a very worrisome thing. Is the nation-state going to be ascendant in the latter half of the 21st century? Are rogue states going to be ascendant, or are extremist religions going to start to exert influences that start to unravel the peace of Westphalia? I think it's a legitimate question that we ought to ask ourselves, and, in my mind, the United States, as a status quo power, should move to do whatever it can to preserve the Westphalian system to the extent possible. Unfortunately, because of our fiscal problems, it's going to be difficult.

Question: You've mentioned a lot about the Middle Eastern conflict and how that's about the Arab-Israeli conflict and how that has impacted our attempts in the Middle East to foster more stability. How do you feel with a government like Israel has right now, which seems unwilling to reciprocate when it comes to the peace talks? They just announced a thousand new housing units. How do we deal with them when they're unwilling to compromise on things like that? 

General Abizaid: My family lived in Israel, and I spent an awful lot of time there as a U.N. officer patrolling the borders. I got to know the Israeli military guys very well, and of course they're very professional people. I have a lot of friendships that I've developed with them, just like I have with Arab officers. And I'll tell you, when you meet average people, they don't want this to continue. They want to find a way ahead.

But the political system in Israel is starting to remind me a little bit of how ours is starting to act, where people abandon the middle and decide on extreme positions—it's better to have a fight and to win two years from now than it is to solve the problems collectively. Israeli politics are very, very difficult in the way that their system works, so that a tiny party, because of the coalition nature of their politics, can have swing influence over how things go. But at the end of the day, I'm an optimist, and I believe that Israel needs peace. They have a demographic time bomb ticking away within the borders of Israel and the occupied territories that are there.

Ultimately, they have to come to some sort of a decision about the nature of the state: is it a Jewish state? Is it an Arab and Jewish state? Is it an Islamic-Jewish state? What is it going to be? Clearly, the Israeli people that founded the place want it to be a Zionist state with a Jewish character. What's going to be the roles of the minorities, and what happens if the minority becomes the majority? These issues have been apparent for a long time, and people that are smart know that they have to be solved. Believe me, there are an awful lot of people in Israel that are working very hard to move this peace process forward. Just because you have a government that is not capable of moving the process forward doesn't mean that a lot of people aren't working forward to try to solve it.

By the way, the Israeli problem is horrific, but so is the Palestinian problem. Palestinians aren't in control of Gaza. Hamas is in control of Gaza. Hamas has no desire to compromise with the Israelis, so it looks like a mess. But it's always looked like a mess, and they've always muddled through. I think at the end of the day, because of the dangers of the Middle East accelerating in the way they are, they'll have greater motivation to do it. American administrations need to pass the torch from administration to administration without it becoming a political football. It has to be done. It's more important than petty politics, not only in Israel and Palestine, but in the United States as well.

Question: I don't accept the Islamic narrative of the Islamic extremists, but one thing that's right, when they talk about the illegitimacy of the governments of the Middle East, is that by any standard they are illegitimate. How are we going to make democracy and human rights part of solving the problem?

General Abizaid: Well, I think the first step is to do your best to make those governments in the region more accountable to their people, and my experience with the region is that it's been more accountable over time than I've seen in a long time. It's become accountable because of this incredible proliferation of information that's out there.

I can only give you a story. The first time I went to Baghdad, you'd look at the roofs—there were no television antennas on the roofs. Go back a month or two later and you start to see satellite dishes. Three months later, satellite dishes all over Baghdad. Then pretty soon, every apartment building has ten of them. Then you go out into the villages--they're out in the villages. I believe, in the environment of information flow that's free, that people will make the choice for freedom, but within their own cultural context.

So thanks, that's the last question. Sorry we couldn't get to more, but we're already over and I apologize for going over. Look, we've talked about a lot of hard things, but I am optimistic. Why am I optimistic? Because the spirit of service, so evident here at BYU, needs to be the spirit of service that all of us have in this great country of ours in order to get through the next twenty or thirty years ourselves.

We've got all sorts of international security problems, we have all sorts of internal economic problems, and it's time to put our shoulder to the wheel to tell our political leaders to get past the rhetoric, to get past the argument, and to start solving the problem. Solve it here, solve it there, solve it together, and maintain our leadership in a way that keeps my kids from fighting in the Middle East. Thanks very much.

Click here to hide the transcript