Retired four-star general named US envoy to Riyadh

Abizaid’s nomination to be US ambassador to Saudi Arabia could be a signal that the defence component of the bilateral relationship remains of vital importance to the White House.
Sunday 18/11/2018
Back in the spotlight. A 2006 file picture shows the then commander  of US forces in the Middle East, US Army General John Abizaid,  visiting the King Abdullah Airbase in Amman.   (AFP)
Back in the spotlight. A 2006 file picture shows the then commander of US forces in the Middle East, US Army General John Abizaid, visiting the King Abdullah Airbase in Amman. (AFP)

Nearly two years into his presidency, Donald Trump named an ambassador to one of the United States’ oldest allies in the Middle East, selecting retired US Army General John Abizaid to head the US Embassy in Riyadh.

Broadly speaking, there are three types of US ambassador: The presidential friend or major campaign donor who is rewarded with a post, usually a cushy one (such as the Bahamas) or one in which the bilateral relationship is deep and strong (the United Kingdom or Canada, for example); the professional career diplomat, who usually is assigned to less glamorous posts where regional expertise is needed (the case of most African countries); and highly respected individuals who enjoy unique access to a broad spectrum of Washington’s leaders.

The last is the type of US ambassador the Saudis have preferred and Abizaid fits the category to a T.

Abizaid was appointed chief of the US Central Command (CENTCOM) in July 2003, following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. As commander of CENTCOM, he was responsible for military strategy and joint operations in a 27-nation region, including the Middle East, the Horn of Africa and Central Asia. He retired from the post and from the military in January 2007, having served as head of CENTCOM for longer than any previous commander.

Abizaid’s nomination to be US ambassador to Saudi Arabia could be a signal that the defence component of the bilateral relationship remains of vital importance to the White House. Abizaid, who speaks Arabic, has cultivated close relationships with officials in the defence establishments of Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries.

Prior to his CENTCOM command, Abizaid served with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in several senior positions, including director of strategic plans and policy and from 1997-99 as commandant of the US Military Academy at West Point, from which he graduated in 1973.

Abizaid studied Arabic at the University of Jordan and earned a master’s degree in Middle East Studies from Harvard University, where his thesis was on Saudi defence policy. He joined the US Army as an infantry platoon leader and rose through the ranks.

In 2005, during the Iraqi civil war, Abizaid gave a speech at the Naval War College in which he said the main threat to the United States remained jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda (the Islamic State was yet to form) and that the situation was similar to that in Europe in the 1920s when Nazism and communism struggled to seize power in Germany and Russia — and ultimately succeeded.

In a prescient comment that could have been a warning about the Islamic State’s rise, Abizaid said that Iraq’s greatest danger was the Sunni insurgency in the four provinces of northern and central Iraq. He said the struggle against al-Qaeda was not “primarily military” but rather “political, economic and ideological.”

In an appearance at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 2006, he said “military power solves only about 20% of your problems in the region. The rest of it needs to be diplomatic, economic and political.”

In a speech before the Washington Centre for Strategic and International Studies in 2007, Abizaid encouraged the international community to join the United States in pressuring Iran to “cease and desist” its development of nuclear weapons. He added, however, that America has the power “to deter Iran should it become nuclear… there are ways to live with a nuclear Iran.”

It is unclear whether Abizaid took a public position on the Iran nuclear deal that was reached under former President Barack Obama.

Abizaid’s nomination comes at a delicate time in US-Saudi relations because the fallout from the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul continues and pressure to sanction Riyadh is likely to grow when the Democratic Party-controlled House of Representatives takes over in January.

His appointment also represents a demotion of sorts for presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, who had established a close personal relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz and in many ways played the de facto role of US ambassador to the kingdom. Marc Lynch, a Middle East specialist at George Washington University, tweeted that Abizaid would be “unlikely to tolerate a Kushner backchannel.”

Abizaid’s nomination will require confirmation by the US Senate, which should come easily. The Senate remains in Republican control but, as a highly respected retired general, Abizaid is likely to enjoy broad bipartisan support. However, senators from both parties are likely to use the hearing to raise questions about the US-Saudi relationship.

Abizaid was born into a Lebanese family in California; his grandparents had immigrated to the United States early in the 20th century. In 2015, Abizaid was featured in a documentary called “The Arab Americans.”

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