The most important front in the "war on terror" is the one the U.S. is most in danger of losing, says Gen. John Abizaid.
In a speech at Carnegie Mellon University on Oct. 31, the retired Army commander told more than 200 people that extremist ideologues in the Middle East, like al-Qaeda, are making use of the Internet in canny ways that reflect their borderless, stateless existence.
A four-star general, Abizaid is an expert on the Middle Eastern conflict, having commanded the United States Central Command which is a 27-country region including much of the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and parts of South and Central Asia.
He is also the highest-ranking Arab-American ever in the U.S. military, was educated at Harvard and the University of Jordan, and speaks Arabic fluently.
"The information battle is the most important part," he said. "I don't think we've made much progress at all." He said that contemporary warfare has evolved, from the land/sea conflicts of the days of Napoleon into land/sea/air during World War I, to land/sea/air/space during the Cold War; now current battles extend into cyberspace. Al-Qaeda has mastered this new front, and the U.S. and others who hope to contain them must keep up, Abizaid said.
"We need to figure out how to control the enemies' use of the Internet in a way that disables them but protects the rights of our citizens," he said.
Abizaid also added that young people who want to pitch in on the Middle Eastern conflict don't necessarily need to enlist or pick up a rifle -- they could help with communication as well. The U.S. must be able to communicate the "American story," he said, in order to regenerate American soft power -- that is, using persuasion to exert control over world affairs -- after the mistakes of the Iraq war and credibility blows like the Abu Ghraib scandal. Those sectors of the foreign service have atrophied, he said.
"In 1965, if you said, 'Give me a Soviet expert, someone who speaks Russian,' there'd be a million applicants." When he asked for an inventory of Arabic speakers in the current army, he said he was astounded to hear that there were 200 candidates.
The conflict, Abizaid says, is much bigger than just Iraq, something people don't see. "Everybody looks through a soda straw at Baghdad and Kabul -- it's bigger than that. Military conflict is taking place on a large scale. ... It's an area trying to figure out what its place will be in the globalizing world we live in -- some of the richest and poorest places on Earth."
He detailed sources of friction in the Middle East that must be addressed before the region can stabilize. Sunni and Shi'a extremism in Iraq and Iran destabilize both countries. "They think in terms of thousands of years and they think they're right." Civilians don't want extremists to triumph, but without stabilizing, they will. The Arab/Israeli conflict is "corrosive," he said, and makes extremist ideologies look attractive. Finally, he stated that the developed and developing worlds need to reduce their dependence on oil from the Middle East, finding an energy source that's "less geopolitically intense."
Gordon Mitchell, associate professor of communications at the University of Pittsburgh and deputy director of the Matthew B. Ridgway Center for International Security Studies, agrees that military power is only one aspect of shaping foreign policy, and that it's often an ineffective tactic. He says that soft power is far more important. "Persuasion on the world stages is the most effective form of power."
Mitchell also says Abizaid is right to worry about the lack of resources devoted to Arabic and culture. "There's been a systematic defunding of that arm, with money being chipped in to expensive weapons and technology," says Mitchell. "That puts us in an unfortunate position, such as the one in Iran where there is an alarming lack of diplomats and intelligence agents who are able to interpret events on the ground. The opinions of those types of people are absolutely essential to help us understand the wisdom of a potential attack."
But there is at least one battle Abizaid declined to get mired in: "I'm not about to criticize the president -- that's not a soldier's place. I'm a soldier, not a Republican, not a Democrat."