By Elena Shao
On Tuesday, the White House announced President Trump’s intent to nominate Hoover Institution fellow and retired four-star Army Gen. John Abizaid as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, a decision that would fill a position that has been vacant since Trump took office in January 2017. The nomination comes during what many see as a critical moment in U.S.-Saudi relations, accentuated by the Oct. 2 killing of Saudi dissident and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Abizaid, who was the first Annenberg Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Hoover, also serves as senior advisor to the Preventive Defense Project (PDP), a research effort directed by Hoover Institution senior fellow and former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry. The research project, which is housed under Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), uses “Track II” diplomacy, or non-governmental dialogue between private groups or citizens, to devise policy approaches for addressing 21st-century security challenges.
Abizaid graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point and earned his M.A. from Harvard University in Middle Eastern Studies. He served in the U.S. Army for 34 years — during wars in Grenada, the Persian Gulf, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq — before retiring in 2007.
Following the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, and subsequent overthrow of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, Abizaid assumed leadership of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which supervises military operations in countries from the Horn of Africa to the Middle East and Central and South Asia. Since his stint as CENTCOM commander, Abizaid has served as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Abizaid’s nomination comes exactly six weeks after Khashoggi, a frequent critic of the Saudi government, was killed during a visit to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi’s death has tested Washington’s relationship with Riyadh, amidst Turkish allegations that the killing was sanctioned and premeditated by Saudi leadership.
In the absence of a permanent Saudi ambassador during the Khashoggi crisis, relations with the royal court have been maintained by Trump’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner.
According to some sources, Trump’s selection is an indication of the importance he is placing on maintaining the military partnership between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, despite ongoing controversy. If Abizaid’s nomination is confirmed by the Senate — where questions on the Saudi arms sales are expected — he will navigate U.S.-Saudi relations that are soon to be tested even further, as Turkey called for an international investigation into Khashoggi’s assassination on Wednesday.
Contact Elena Shao at eshao98 ‘at’ stanford.edu.