By Gerry J. Gilmore
National security interests compel the United States to shape, but not control, developments in the Middle East, a region of the world that is being shaken by globalization, the senior U.S. officer responsible for the region said here yesterday. The Middle East has always been a melting pot of ethnicity, shifting allegiances and off-and-on violence, Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, commander of U.S. Central Command, said in luncheon remarks to members of the Military Officers Association of America.
The Middle East and nearby regions that are also part of CENTCOM's area of operations contain some of the richest and poorest countries of the world, Abizaid pointed out.
"It is an area of great religious diversity, but it's also an area where Sunni and Shia Islam are experiencing an incredible amount of turmoil in coming to grips with modernization and a fight against very, very dangerous extremism," the general explained.
That Islamic extremism visited the United States with destructive force on Sept. 11, 2001, Abizaid noted.
Today, many Middle Easterners and others in the surrounding region who are used to living a traditional life that traces back hundreds or thousands of years are trying to understand the quickly changing, faster-paced world around them, Abizaid said. Some people in the region, he added, also see the rest of the world as developing modern institutions and opportunities that are nonexistent in their lives.
Consequently, Abizaid said, the Middle East and other regions have become "a land and an area of incredible frustration, but also an area of incredible hope."
Today's Middle East also poses a great danger for the United States and the world, "if we don't figure out how to shape its future," Abizaid asserted.
It's a grave mistake, Abizaid cautioned, to believe the United States can control events in the Middle East and the surrounding region.
However, it's possible "to shape it to an outcome that allows it to move forward with the rest of the world in a positive manner," the general said. That can only be done by the United States and the international community, he said.
Abizaid pointed to what has already been accomplished in Afghanistan and Iraq, with U.S. and allied military forces having toppled two despotic regimes in the name of peace and stability.
"It's an incredible record of military accomplishment" achieved by America's armed forces, Abizaid noted. Yet, it will take additional patience, perseverance and courage, he said, to defeat global Islamic terrorism.
Iraq and Afghanistan must be stabilized, the general said, to deny them as terrorist training grounds and launching pads for future attacks.
Also, measures must continue, Abizaid said, to protect and guarantee maritime traffic, including the shipping of oil through the Straits of Hormuz, near Iran, and the Suez Canal, near Egypt.
Iran, which is reported to be working to develop nuclear weapons, isn't friendly to the United States, Abizaid pointed out.
"We've got to deter Iran," Abizaid asserted, as the U.S. and its allies continue to use military, diplomatic and economic means to stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan. American and allied forces must also continue to conduct anti-terror operations across the Middle East, the general said.
"And, it requires an architecture of U.S. presence and power in the region in order to be successful," Abizaid said. Paramount in this endeavor, he said, is increasing the capacity of states in the region to resist terrorist intrusions.
"Helping states help themselves" to combat terrorism will lessen American military presence in the Middle East, Abizaid explained, "because the people that need to win the fight in the region against the very dangerous extremist threats that exist are the people that live there."
Finding a way to provide that capacity in places like Iraq and Afghanistan "is one of the most important things we do," Abizaid said.
Yet, Iran remains the country that seeks to spoil U.S. and allied efforts at Middle East stabilization, Abizaid said.
"Iran has developed a capable naval force, they've developed a missile force," Abizaid pointed out. Iran also has a terrorist component, he added, that conducted a successful campaign against the Israelis during the recent fighting in Lebanon.
Iran is also "proceeding on a nuclear program that we're convinced is designed to produce nuclear weapons," Abizaid said. Iran professes to seek peace and security in the Middle East, he observed, yet aggressively pursues its own self-interest, including the backing of Shia Islamic revolutionary extremism.
Another threat in the Middle East is the rise of Sunni Arab extremism, as exemplified by the ideology of terrorist Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terror network and affiliated groups, Abizaid said.
"These are the people that brought us 9/11," Abizaid said. "These are the people that have figured out how to be non-state actors and pursue a global insurgency to deliver combat power not only to the United States, but to England, to Morocco, to Jakarta, to just about anywhere that they decide they want to be able to deliver it."
The terrorists' turn-back-the-clock ideology is opposed to everything the United States stands for, Abizaid pointed out. Individual rights, religious freedom and women's rights have no place or meaning in the terrorists' world view, the general said.
Most Middle Easterners don't want bin Laden to win, but there are also many people in the region who support him, Abizaid said. The terrorists use the internet to recruit, communicate and to spread propaganda, the general said, and they seek ungoverned areas of the world to train for future attacks.
If bin Laden and his ideology manage to take over major countries like Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, Abizaid said, that will likely lead to a global clash of civilizations some 50 years hence.
"If we had had the guts to face the fascists in the 20s and the 30s, perhaps we could have avoided World War II," Abizaid said. "If we keep the guts to confront Osama bin Laden and his very dangerous ideology today, perhaps we can avoid World War III."
Today, the terrorists are generating chaos and instability in an attempt to bring down the democratic governments of Iraq and Afghanistan, the general noted.
"We've got to contest them wherever they want to fight us, and they are determined, as I said, to bring a weapon of mass destruction to bear in the region and to bear against us," Abizaid said.
The general praised the thousands of U.S. servicemembers deployed in the war against terrorism. He said he was cheered during a recent visit to Harvard University, where many students are considering joining the military, the State Department, or one of the national intelligence agencies.
"So, the young people that are out there just give me great hope," Abizaid said. "But, no young people, anywhere, give me as much hope as our young soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines that are out there fighting for us."
The general compared today's servicemembers with past U.S. military veterans who fought fascism during World War II.
"If they're not the greatest generation, they will be the greatest generation," Abizaid asserted. "What they have sacrificed, what they've given to us, the way that they perform is absolutely magnificent, and I think they deserve a round of applause."
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