BRIEF LIVES December 2003

Abizaid of Arabia

General John Abizaid has driven big changes in the American military. Now, as he commands U.S. forces in the Middle East, his ideas are being put to the test
More

This past July, a week after taking charge—as the chief of what the military calls Central Command—of all U.S. forces in the Middle East, the four-star Army general John Abizaid stepped over the line. He deliberately used the loaded word "guerrilla" to describe the escalating Iraqi resistance to U.S. occupation—something his civilian superiors had gone out of their way to avoid. Reporters pounced, even as soldiers quietly applauded Abizaid's candor. The Administration let it go—testimony to Abizaid's standing in the Pentagon, where he is said to be one of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's favorite officers.

And not only Rumsfeld's. To a remarkable degree Abizaid is admired by his fellow officers, many of whom have said outright that he is uniquely suited to oversee the increasingly complex and bloody occupation of Iraq. Indeed, Abizaid's entire life seems to have prepared him to be the military proconsul of an Arab country in chaos. But now the question is whether he can step up from a career of triumphs in smaller arenas to take on the nation-building challenge of the decade.

Lieutenant Colonel Hank Keirsey (now retired) got a firsthand look at Abizaid's approach when the general commanded an airborne brigade in a war-games exercise at Fort Polk, Louisiana, back in 1995. "He was probably at his best in the chaos of the 'low-intensity' fight," Keirsey recalls, "the one that most usually confuses the modern American commander." In the phase of the exercise simulating a "high-intensity" war, against a conventional, tank-heavy force, Abizaid's performance was unspectacular, marred by gaps in the performance of his staff. But in the phase simulating a "low-intensity" war, against Third World insurgents, Abizaid's unit killed more guerrillas than any other Keirsey had ever seen. Discarding standard procedure ("He operated that brigade almost by ignoring his staff," Keirsey recalls), Abizaid improvised quick counterstrikes and repeatedly turned the tables on his would-be ambushers. This unconventional approach to warfare was not how the Army had taught Abizaid to fight. It was something he had largely taught himself.

John Abizaid graduated from West Point in 1973, ranked forty-second out of 944 in the class that just missed Vietnam. Above his yearbook photo is the cryptic caption "The 'Mad Arab' came from the deserts of the West to become a star-man"—a reference to Abizaid's Lebanese roots, to his California home town of Coleville, and to the star insignia he was entitled to wear for being in the top five percent of his class. It was at West Point that he first developed a reputation for fierce intelligence that persists today. "When people talk among themselves," says Michael Pasquarett, a retired colonel who teaches at the Army War College, "they'll say, 'Abizaid has a forty-pound brain.'" After graduation Abizaid spent three years in elite airborne and Ranger units, as a platoon and then a company commander; next he won an Olmsted scholarship—a military award for study abroad, given to only three to six young Army officers each year. Most officers would have chosen to study somewhere in Western Europe, where Army careers were then usually made. Abizaid decided to go to the University of Jordan, in Amman.

Olmsted scholars are supposed to study on their own, taking courses in a foreign language at a civilian institution, their uniforms in mothballs, their only Army contact the military attaché at the U.S. embassy. Abizaid headed into a situation that was exceptionally unsettled; after a year of intensive Arabic in the United States, he arrived in Amman in September of 1978, just ahead of the first explosion of modern extremist Islam—the Iranian revolution of 1979. Jordan, with its pro-American monarchy and its Palestinian majority, was thrown into turmoil by events in Iran; unrest and riots repeatedly shut down the university.

So Abizaid struck out on his own. He trained with the Jordanian army, visited neighboring Iraq (where Saddam Hussein was consolidating power), and camped out in the desert with Bedouins. "He wasn't just talking to well-to-do English-speaking people in Amman," one officer who knew Abizaid in Jordan says. "He was getting out to tribal areas and having dinner with sheikhs."

When Abizaid returned to the United States, in 1980, he completed an M.A. in Middle Eastern studies at Harvard, and then went back to his combat-infantry career. This was unusual. Officers who are labeled specialists in a given region usually end up at headquarters and embassies, pigeonholed as area experts. But except for a short tour as a UN observer in Lebanon, Abizaid spent the 1980s in one career-enhancing post after another: leading a Ranger company air-dropped into Grenada; serving in the Army Chief of Staff's research group; commanding the 3/325 Infantry, widely considered to be the best battalion in Europe.

Abizaid led that battalion into Iraq in 1991, in the chaos of Operation Provide Comfort. The mission was to protect and feed thousands of Kurdish refugees fleeing Saddam Hussein's reprisals, but without restarting the Gulf War in their behalf. Prohibited from unleashing his superior firepower, Abizaid used everything from laborious negotiations to painfully loud rock music to keep the Iraqi forces back.

In a conventional career the next stop would have been the Army War College, where future generals are groomed. Instead Abizaid spent a year at Stanford's Hoover Institution, on a National Security Affairs fellowship, studying how to train troops for peacekeeping. In an article about the challenges of peacekeeping that he co-authored at the time (published in Special Warfare, the magazine of the Special Forces, and based on his meetings with military officials in Somalia and elsewhere), Abizaid wrote that "doctrinal voids exist at every level," and argued repeatedly that peacekeeping required a new kind of initiative that would have to rise up from the lowest ranks. In northern Iraq and in Bosnia peacekeepers were scattered in small units, isolated from one another and surrounded by feuding locals. "In each instance," Abizaid wrote, "superiors were far away, and quite junior leaders were required to defuse numerous potentially dangerous situations." He underlined his point by quoting Brigadier Michael Harbottle, an Englishman and a former chief of staff for UN forces deployed to Cyprus: "There is no doubt in my mind that the success of a peacekeeping operation depends more than anything else on the vigilance and mental alertness of the most junior soldier and his non-commissioned leader, for it is on their reaction and immediate response that the success of the operations rests."

In 1997, after a tour with the NATO Stabilization Force in Bosnia, Abizaid moved to West Point to become its commandant. The role of the commandant does not involve overall command of the academy (which falls to the superintendent, a respected elder general) or supervision of the academic program (which falls to the dean, a long-serving professor). The commandant is an ambassador from the real Army—a one-star general who spends just two years at West Point and whose task is to ready the cadets to be real officers. He oversees the honor code, the daily drills, and the summer field training that makes West Point a fifty-weeks-a-year experience.

When Abizaid arrived at West Point, the military was still struggling with the ambiguities of the post-Cold War world. What did it mean to be an officer in a country with no clear foe? Abizaid stepped into an environment in which battles raged over whether to train warriors or peacekeepers, whether to scream in cadets' faces or correct them calmly, whether different physical standards were appropriate for female cadets, whether a sensitivity program called "Respect for Others" was politically correct pabulum, and whether some cadet "traditions" had in fact degenerated into hazing. (In one popular pre-Abizaid practice, called "shower detail," upperclassmen wrapped a freshman, or "plebe," in a hot plastic poncho and had him recite academy trivia for hours, sweating profusely, until he passed out.) Reformers argued that the old ways taught cadets to be bullies; traditionalists countered that the new ways would make them wimps. The superintendent who hired Abizaid, Lieutenant General Dan Christman (now retired), sought to strike a balance by adopting an approach that he characterized as "demanding without being demeaning." To train cadets for the realities of the modern world, Christman decided, he needed a commandant "who was both a warrior and someone who could think."

Abizaid cracked down on hazing, to the point of expelling repeat offenders. "People from MacArthur on tried to get rid of it," says David Lipsky, whose recently published Absolutely American followed a class of cadets from 1998 to 2002. But under Abizaid, he says, "that stuff stopped." At the same time, Abizaid made cadets' training more rigorous. According to Hank Keirsey, who worked for Abizaid at West Point, Abizaid's approach was "I don't just want them getting yelled at by the first classmen [seniors] and upperclassmen back in the barracks about their beds' not being made. I want the toughness to be out in the field." Abizaid added more miles of running to the training program, more weapons drills, and a multi-day "Warrior Forge" in which cadets crossed rope bridges, fought simulated battles all night, pushed a Humvee a thousand yards, and finally swam across a lake. Traditionally, the last day of summer field training ended with exhausted sophomore cadets' piling into trucks for the eight-mile trip back to West Point. Abizaid had them run back, and he ran at the head of the column.

One cadet who benefited from Abizaid's hands-on approach was Second Lieutenant Tucker Mahoney, class of 2002. Mahoney spent his first two days of fire-arms drill missing target after target, despite a crowd of other cadets and instructors who were trying to help, until, he says, Abizaid "came over, dismissed them all, got into a prone position next to me, and told me to relax and fire." Two hours later, with Abizaid still by his side, Mahoney finally mastered the drill. "He knew when to be a disciplinarian," says Captain Alan Clinard, class of 1998, "but he knew how to use other methods, [especially] leadership by example. He really emphasized the cadets' taking charge. He made the upperclass cadets a lot more involved in what was trained, how it was trained." Abizaid also instituted a controversial reform in which cadets, not faculty officers, handle most of the disciplinary system themselves, using elaborate review boards modeled on regular Army hearings. His changes to the disciplinary system have raised some eyebrows. One officer who otherwise admires Abizaid calls the process "silly," saying, "You have eighteen-year-olds being supervised by nineteen-year-olds who are being supervised by twenty-year-olds." Silly or not, the changes were motivated by Abizaid's desire to implement a new philosophy of military training that would be in step with modern realities. Army units that had spent the Cold War in garrison were suddenly being scattered across an ever messier world; new lieutenants could no longer count on commanding one small part of a large formation lined up against a single foe. "Having come from the Balkans," Lieutenant Colonel Charles Peddy says of Abizaid, with whom he worked on the new disciplinary regulations at West Point, "and having worked in Iraq after the '91 war, he had an understanding that the new graduates had to be more than just guys who could shoot rifles and maneuver. You were going to find a young lieutenant by himself as the mayor of a small town."

That is just what is now happening across Iraq. The problem, of course, is that General Abizaid cannot command a 130,000-strong army of occupation the way he led the cadets at West Point or his airborne brigade in war games at Fort Polk—by leaving his staff behind in order to be hands-on at the front. The irony of being a four-star general is that all your tremendous power must be wielded through others. Abizaid has spent three decades building the experience and the education that now underlie his plans for running Central Command, but he can be only as effective as the soldiers working for him on the ground. It is the young captains and lieutenants in their twenties—the generation brought up in the new military that Abizaid helped to create—whose day-to-day decisions will pacify, or provoke, the people of Iraq.

Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. covers homeland-security policy, interagency coordination, and military reform for National Journal.
Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Time JFK Called the Air Force to Complain About a 'Silly Bastard'

51 years ago, President John F. Kennedy made a very angry phone call.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In