By now American news junkies are familiar with the hawk-eyed countenance of Gen. Tommy Franks — but his right-hand man, Lieutenant General John Abizaid, may be every bit as key to U.S. operations against Iraq.
Named the deputy commander of U.S. Central Command in February, Abizaid is one of the most senior U.S. military officers of direct Arab descent, born in the United States to a Lebanese family. A presence at press briefings at U.S. Central Command headquarters in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, he is the Pentagon’s point man for operations inside Iraq and U.S. military relations in the Arab world.
Abizaid is also frequently mentioned as a likely choice to head the rebuilding of Iraq once the Hussein regime collapses. In early March, when asked whether Abizaid would play a role in reconstructing Iraq, a senior defense official said, “Certainly, eventually he will.”
Abizaid’s career has displayed a rare combination of scholarly studies and hands-on military leadership. He earned a master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies while at Harvard, after earning the nickname the “Mad Arab” at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Abizaid speaks Arabic, studied at the University of Jordan in Amman as well as a U.S. Army War College Senior Fellowship at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and served as an operations officer with a U.N. observer group in Lebanon.
His other stints have been as an infantry commander, commandant of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and assistant to then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Shalikashvili in 1993. He led a U.S. Army Ranger rifle company during the 1983 invasion of Grenada, and his use of a commandeered bulldozer to advance on a Cuban position inspired a fictional scene in the 1986 Clint Eastwood movie “Heartbreak Ridge.”
He has cited his studies in comments expressing confidence that Iraqi civilians will see American forces as liberators, not conquerors.
“I would say, as a person who has studied the Arab world and loves the Arab world, that the majority of educated Arabs that I talk to know that Saddam Hussein has been a plague on the Arab world and on his own people, and they welcome his removal,” Abizaid said at a briefing at Central Command on Sunday.
When asked about how the Iraqis and the Muslim world will react to televised images of American prisoners of war, Abizaid said, “I think that the people of Iraq who see those images will not be heartened, they’ll not be encouraged, they’ll just regard it as one more brutality inflicted on people by a regime that has inflicted countless brutalities upon their people.”
“The same goes for the rest of the Muslim world,” Abizaid said. “No one has killed more Muslims than Saddam Hussein. So, the sympathies for that regime and for this brutal dictator are not served by the humiliation of our people.”
Abizaid’s prominence sends a reassuring message to Arab Americans, says Jean AbiNader, managing director of the Arab-American Institute.
“As a community, we are really pleased that his expertise has been recognized,” AbiNader said. “General Tommy Franks has made a specific effort to bring in a respected military leader and to show that his ethnicity is not an impediment to his serving at this critical time.”
AbiNader hopes that the Lebanese-American military leader takes a more public role in articulating the Pentagon’s goals, methods, and ideals.
“I think would like to see him get as much exposure as possible so that people get the sense that they know him, rather than just dealing with sound bites,” AbiNader said.
He added that Abizaid appears to be the best choice to head the rebuilding of Iraq after Hussein’s regime collapses.
“He has a reputation for being highly pragmatic and practical, and nonideological,” AbiNader said. “I think he’ll make an exceptionally good leader in anything America tries to do post-Saddam. The fact that he is very much part of disciplined culture of the military suggests that he will focus on the job and not be distracted by pundits on the left or the right.”
In January, the Pentagon established the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance to deal with the post-Saddam conditions in Iraq. There will be at least three prominent leadership roles in postwar Iraq, according to a senior defense official said. A reconstruction coordinator who is likely to be “a very experienced official” with the U.S. Agency for International Development, according to the official. There will also be a civil administrator, who is likely to be “a DOD official who has a great deal of experience;” and a humanitarian assistance coordinator who is likely to be “a former ambassador.”
AbiNader is also optimistic that Abizaid can sway at least some of the hearts and minds of the Arab world.
“It sends a good sign over there,” AbiNader said. “There’s concern in the Arab world that the U.S. is discriminating against Arab-Americans because of their ethnicity and religion. To have someone in that kind of position, who is clearly not just there for show, is really important.”
But other military experts like Baker Spring, a national-security research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, have doubts about how much effect Abizaid would have.
“One of the real myths that is being exploded in very graphic terms, not just by war but by the run-up to the war, is the idea that the Arab world or Muslim world is a unified political and cultural bloc,” Spring said.
Daniel Byman, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, said Abizaid appears be a good choice to head U.S. postwar operations in Iraq, but adds that it’s hard to predict how Iraqis or Arab regimes will react to him.
“There is a very strong sense in Arab world that the U.S. is a racist nation and that it deliberately seeks to keep Arabs and Muslims down and humiliated,” Byman said. “One of the best ways to refute those ideas is to display Arab-Americans in well-earned prominent positions, and Abizaid is a great example of that.”
Byman adds that the Iraqis will probably not be terribly concerned about the ethnic heritage of any American leader keeping the peace in Baghdad after Hussein’s demise.
“I think the implications are aimed more at the Arab world in general,” Byman said. “The Iraqis are likely to be more focused on whether the incoming individual can deliver humanitarian relief and maintain order. That’s what they’ll judge him on, not his ethnic background.”
— Jim Geraghty, a reporter with States News Service in Washington, D.C., is a regular contributor to NRO.