Retired Gen. John Abizaid shared some light moments — as well as some serious ones — when he recently spoke at the Douglas County Lincoln-Reagan Dinner Celebration.
Abizaid, a Douglas County resident who served as U.S. Central Command commander from 2003-07, spoke on several topics during his “President Trump’s Global Strategic Challenges” presentation in the Valley Ballroom.
“I’m here to talk about our great country and about our armed forces. I’m not a political person. I am a soldier of the republic and I swore to support and defend the Constitution of the United States,” Abizaid said. “President Trump has got his hands full … with a lot of things. But I’m here to talk about those things that we as citizens ought to be worried about. Not so much worried about, but we ought to be thinking about; things that are important to us from a national security point of view.”
He also expressed his belief that Americans can be confident they are in good hands.
“I want to point out that our members of the armed forces, our elected officials, our many people that are in the diplomatic services, the CIA or whatever, we can all sleep well at night,” Abizaid said. “We can pretend that the situation is going to get worse, but it can’t get too bad as long as we have good people with us. I can assure you, we really have good people with us, and we have had ever since the formation of this great republic.”
He also outlined some of the challenges facing Trump.
“You can hardly imagine a person who’s got more responsibilities than that particular person,” Abizaid said. “But he’s also got a lot of assets and we need to think about those problems that are going to confront him as our chief executive.”
He listed six points:
“China’s a very important nation, much bigger than we are. It’s got a gross national product that will probably surpass us in a few years, they are building their military might and they’re flexing their muscles in the South China Sea,” Abizaid said. “And while I’m not predicting we will go to war with them, I am saying that we need to pay attention to what they’re doing and keep our armed forces strong so that we don’t have to confront them in the distant future. They’re a nuclear power. They’re very capable. They are worried about all sorts of different things, but in particular, they want to be a competitor to us and we should suspect in the years ahead that we’re going to have competition from them; not war, but competition. We need to pay attention to who they are and what they do. And in particular, we need to pay attention to their naval buildup in the South China Sea.”
■ North Korea
“Just the other day, the North Koreans launched a nuclear ballistic missile,” Abizaid said. “It’s not really nuclear yet. It’s capable of carrying a nuclear weapon, perhaps. We’re not quite sure. But if they ever can get their technology to the point where they can put a nuclear weapon on that intercontinental ballistic missile, then we all need to be nervous. And we need to be nervous because if you haven’t paid attention to who’s leading that country, you should.” He then drew a laugh from the audience in talking about North Korea’s Kim Jong-un: “Very unpredictable, has a bad haircut, but dangerous … not only to us, but to his own people. I would say that in the days ahead, probably sooner than later, the president and his senior advisers and his military advisers will have to come up with courses of action to deal with that particular problem, and do so knowing that the Chinese may or may not want us to do whatever course of action we come up with.”
Russia is an area of focus for Abizaid in his current position as senior adviser to the Ukrainian Minister of Defense. “The Ukraine is fighting very hard against the Russian separatists. And it’s not just Russian separatists that they’re fighting. The Russians are using their main force artillery units, cyber capability, electronic warfare and they’re being incredibly aggressive there. We have been in support of the Ukrainians giving them non-lethal aid in a way that allows us to bring our soldiers into western Ukraine and train some of their battalions before they go into the combat area. It’s hard to say where we’re going to head in this relationship with Russia. On one hand, it makes sense to reach out to the Russians and find a better path ahead. But, on the other hand, it also makes sense to protect our NATO allies and protect our friends in the region, such as the Ukrainians, to the extent that we can.”
■ The Middle East
The Middle East is his “favorite part of the world.” Abizaid’s grandparents immigrated from Lebanon in the late 19th century and was himself a Homestead Scholar at the University of Jordan. “In December, I was visiting with some of my colleagues in Kurdistan, which is the northern part of Iraq. We were in the front line area with Kurdish units and watching Iraqi tank units go through on their way to Mosul, and unfortunately, they were going in to liberate the most Sunni of all the cities of Iraq. They were flying Shia battle flags and they had Iranian advisers on their tanks. It was really a wake-up call for me. We’ve been fighting over there many years and it’s far from over.” He addressed another major concern. “ISIS is a large Muslim extremist movement that is ideological in nature and seen every Muslim country. We need to be able to defeat them on the battlefield in a couple of different places like Raqqa and Mosul. But we need to understand, beating ISIS causes the rest of the Arab world, and the Sunni Arab world in particular, to ask the question, ‘Now what for the rest of us?’ And while we need to destroy the extremists with our military forces, diplomatically we must continue to reach out to our Sunni allies and friends in the region in a way that will allow them to have a better chance for a better future. If we don’t do that, this ideological trend will never be destroyed.”
■ The North Atlantic Treaty Organization
The organization is a subject President Trump brought up during the 2016 election campaign. “Our European friends, as our president says, are not meeting their obligations with regard to how much they’re paying for their common defense of NATO. But we need to reach out to them. They’re still our allies and friends. We need to reach out to them and encourage them to meet their obligations and make sure that they understand we are with them in this alliance that has been indispensable to us for so long and will continue to be indispensable to us,” he said.
■ Nuclear weapon concerns
“We’ve got to work a way to reduce the amount of nuclear weapons,” he said. “We’ve got work a way to defeat state-sponsored cyber terrorism, which is, unfortunately, coming from everywhere, in particular, Russia and China. Probably the gravest threat to our national defense is sequestration and the continued squandering of resources of national defense by not giving our military enough resources to do their job. I’ll be the first to say that our military needs to do some reform itself. We spend too much on high-ticket weapons programs. We’re not as efficient as we should be with the taxpayers’ dollars. But on the other hand, we can’t have an army that’s too small for its mission, which we have today. We can’t have a navy with not enough ships. It will take years to bring our armed forces back to the strength that they need to be in order to keep the country safe. And to me, that’s the number one challenge the president faces.”
Abizaid began and ended his presentation by talking about the troops who serve in the U.S. military.
“I’ve probably said enough about all the potential hot spots and troubles … and I’m still smiling,” Abizaid said. “I’m smiling because I know the young people that defend our country. They wear the uniform, they swear an oath of allegiance to the Constitution, they never let one another down, they’re prepared to do whatever the president tells them to do, they are ready to fight for their country wherever that may be. They’re serving all over the world in places you can hardly imagine, and they never let us down.”