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.