President Donald Trump has nominated John Abizaid as ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
The retired general has opposed the Iranian nuclear program but also urged Israeli restraint in confronting it.
As an observer for the UN in 1985, Abizaid saw some of Hezbollah’s first terrorist attacks, and has spoken about the threat of terrorism in the region.
His nomination comes at a crucial juncture for US-Saudi relations and also Riyadh’s role in the region. Abizaid will fill a spot that has been open for several years.
A former US Central Command commander, Abizaid has a long background in the Middle East and its wars.
Abizaid is of Lebanese descent and a fluent Arabic speaker.
Retiring from the US military in 2007, he was the longest serving commander of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) at a time when the US was embroiled in a variety of wars in the region.
This gives him an unprecedented view into the current US role, including the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, areas that Saudi Arabia also has an interest in. However, much has changed in the last decade, and Abizaid is coming to Riyadh at a unique time.
He has viewed Iran’s nuclear program as a danger to the region, but also said in 2007 that the US could learn to “live with a nuclear Iran.”
In comments to the Center for Strategic and International Studies that year, he noted that the US had learned to deal with a nuclear China and Russia.
“The Israelis have the capability to make a lasting impression on the Iranian nuclear program with their military capabilities,” he told a US Marine Corps Conference in 2008.
In another discussion in 2008 at the Pacific Council, Abizaid said that deterrence would work with Iran.
“It is a country of many different power centers that are competing.”
He said Iran was likely not interested in starting a nuclear war.
Coming to Israel’s concerns, he noted “they can take care of themselves up to a point.”
However “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 weapons.
Over the next 20 years the relationship will have to go from a de facto alliance to one of unmistakable alliance.”
That would appear to imply a treaty guaranteeing Israel defense in case of Iran deploying a weapon.
The issue was never elaborated on because Iran didn’t develop a nuclear weapon and the Iran Deal changed the conversation.
Abizaid has also been outspoken on the threat of extremism and the need for US presence in the region.
In 2007, he told a gathering at Carnegie Mellon University that “Over time, we will have to shift the burden of the military fight from our forces directly to regional forces, and we will have to play an indirect role.”
However the US shouldn’t assume that its military power can just come home and relax, he said “The strategic situation in the region doesn’t seem to show that is possible.”
This “long war” doctrine has been borne out by the current US posture in the region and throughout parts of Africa and Asia where US special forces and advisers are aiding in numerous conflicts against different groups connected to Al Qaeda, ISIS or their allies.
Abizaid warned in 2016 that the US was losing ground in this battle against “extremism.”
Abizaid is deeply familiar with Lebanon, where he served with the UN in 1985. According to Gregg Jaffe and David Cloud’s account in The Fourth Star, he saw some of the first suicide bombings and attacks carried out by Hezbollah and its allies.
This included a March 1985 suicide truck bombing targeting the IDF in South Lebanon on the road to Metulla.
His family lived in Israel when he was with the UN, during a time when Shi’ite extremists fired Katyushas from Lebanon.
“There was no shortage of willing martyrs,” he wrote about those joining the terrorists.