And so it has come to pass. The Long War has now lasted twice as long as the average length of marriages in the United States, with no end in sight. Whether intuitively or after careful study, General Abizaid had divined something important indeed.
Crucially, however, his critique went beyond the question of duration. Abizaid also departed from the administration's line in describing the actual nature of the problem at hand. "Terrorists" per se were not the enemy, he insisted at the time. The issue was much bigger than any one organization such as al-Qaeda. The real threat facing the United States came from what he called "Salafist jihadists," radicalized Sunni Muslims committed by whatever means necessary to propagating a strict and puritanical form of Islam around the world. To promote their cause, Salafists eagerly embraced violence.
Back in 2004, when Abizaid was venturing heretical thoughts, the United States had gotten itself all tangled up in a nasty scuffle in Iraq. A year earlier, the U.S. had invaded that country to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Now the Iraqi dictator was indubitably a bad actor. At least some of the charges that George W. Bush and his subordinates, amplified by a neoconservative chorus, lodged against him were true. Yet Saddam was the inverse of a Salafist.
Indeed, even before plunging into Iraq, looking beyond an expected easy win over Saddam, George W. Bush had identified Iran as a key member of an "Axis of Evil" and implicitly next in line for liberation. Sixteen years later, members of the Trump administration still hanker to have it out with the ayatollahs governing Shiite-majority Iran. Yet, as was the case with Saddam, those ayatollahs are anything but Salafists.
Now, it's worth noting that Abizaid was not some dime-a-dozen four-star. He speaks Arabic, won a fellowship to study in Jordan, and earned a graduate degree in Middle East Studies at Harvard. If the post-9/11 American officer corps had in its ranks an equivalent of Lawrence of Arabia, he was it, even if without T.E. Lawrence's (or Peter O'Toole's) charisma and flair for self-promotion. Nonetheless, with Abizaid suggesting, in effect, that the Iraq War was "the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time against the wrong enemy," just about no one in Washington was willing to listen.
That once-familiar quotation dates from 1951, when General Omar Bradley warned against extending the then-ongoing Korean War into China. Bradley's counsel carried considerable weight -- and limiting the scope of the Korean War made it possible to end that conflict in 1953.
Abizaid's counsel turned out to carry next to no weight at all. So the Long War just keeps getting longer, even as its strategic rationale becomes ever more difficult to discern.
The Real Enemy
Posit, for the sake of discussion, that back in 2004 Abizaid was onto something -- as indeed he was. Who then, in this Long War of ours, is our adversary? Who is in league with those Salafi jihadists? Who underwrites their cause?
The answer to those questions is not exactly a mystery. It's the Saudi royal family. Were it not for Saudi Arabia's role in promoting militant Salafism over the course of several decades, it would pose no bigger problem than Cliven Bundy's bickering with the Bureau of Land Management.
To put it another way, while the Long War has found U.S. troops fighting the wrong enemy for years on end in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, the nexus of the problem remains Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have provided billions to fund madrassas and mosques, spreading Salafism to the far reaches of the Islamic world. Next to oil, violent jihadism is Saudi Arabia's principal export. Indeed, the former funds the latter.
Those Saudi efforts have borne fruit of a poisonous character. Recall that Osama bin Laden was a Saudi. So, too, were 15 of the 19 hijackers on September 11, 2001. These facts are not incidental, even if -- to expand on Donald Rumsfeld's famous typology of known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns -- Washington treats them as knowns we prefer to pretend we don't know.
So from the outset, in the conflict that the United States dates from September 2001, our ostensible ally has been the principal source of the problem. In the Long War, Saudi Arabia represents what military theorists like to call the center of gravity, defined as "the source of power that provides moral or physical strength, freedom of action, or will to act" to the enemy. When it comes to Salafist jihadism, Saudi Arabia fits that definition to a T.
So there is more than a little poetic justice -- or is it irony? -- in General Abizaid's proposed posting to Riyadh. The one senior military officer who early on demonstrated an inkling of understanding of the Long War's true nature now prepares to take up an assignment in what is, in essence, the very center of the enemy's camp. It's as if President Lincoln had dispatched Ulysses S. Grant to Richmond, Virginia, in 1864 as his liaison to Jefferson Davis.
Which brings us to the opportunity referred to at the outset of this essay. The opportunity is not Abizaid's. He can look forward to a frustrating and probably pointless assignment. Yet Trump's nomination of Abizaid presents an opportunity to the U.S. senators charged with approving his appointment. While we can take it for granted that Abizaid will be confirmed, the process of confirmation offers the Senate, and especially members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a chance to take stock of this Long War of ours and, in particular, to assess how Saudi Arabia fits into the struggle.
Who better to reflect on these matters than John Abizaid? Imagine the questions: