A Military Perspective on Humanitarian Intervention

A Military Perspective on Humanitarian Intervention

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Humanitarian Intervention

Event Description

John P. Abizaid, retired U.S. Army general, and F.J. Bing West, former assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs at the Department of Defense, join Kathleen Troia McFarland, national security analyst at Fox News, to provide insight and on-the-ground perspective on intervention efforts over the past twenty years. They discuss military and humanitarian interventions, and the current challenges posed by Islamist terrorists and strained military resources. The most successful interventions, they say, are when the stakes are intermediate and neither side is keen to escalate into war.

This symposium is cosponsored with the University of Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism and CFR's Center for Preventive Action and International Institutions and Global Governance Program.

Event Highlights

John Abizaid on military strategy and resources:

"…there's a huge mismatch between our strategic posture, our resources, and our ability to deal with potential problems that will undoubtedly emerge out in the mid-21st century."

John Abizaid on intervention in the Middle East:

"…the Middle East as we know is in the middle of reordering itself in a historic way. …The old order is breaking down; the new order is starting to form, and it is going to be very, very difficult to put Humpty Dumpty back together. There's an independent state in Kurdistan, for all intents and purposes. There is an independent Sunni state…that expands into both Iraq and Syria and ultimately will try to go into Jordan and northern Lebanon. …these are profound changes that the international community has to first admit that it's happening, and then they have to come up with an action plan, in conjunction with the good people in the region, of how to deal with this thing. I believe that you have to make the decision. Either you're going to intervene or you're not. But if you make the decision that you're going to intervene without your full capability of assets, you are doomed to failure."

Bing West on fighting ISIS:

"Right now we are in an age of jihadism but I don't consider that an intervention; I do consider that a war. And when you go to war you go to war to win and you use the resources that you have to win."

MCFARLAND: I was really excited about this conference today because not only did Robert Pape set us up really well for humanitarian intervention, the idea of it, it could not be more topical than today. This is a section—session that's on the record, so if we have any journalists, anybody—whatever you say is going to live forever.

I am going to open this, have a question and answer with the two gentlemen here, and then about 10:30, 10:35 we'll open it up to your questions.

And then I'd like to have each of you do a summary at the very end.

It's exciting to have these two men here, both of whom I've either known or worked with or known of, and—because they come to it from a very different perspective than the panel we've just had. These are the guys where the rubber hits the road.

General Abizaid is—is—has been at every major humanitarian and military conflict the United States has had since Vietnam in very high positions. He is the guy who had to implement the policies.

And Bing West, a Vietnam veteran, wrote the legendary book that is required reading for every Marine in the room called "The Village," about counterinsurgency and counterterrorism in the Vietnam War. And since then, he's been at the highest levels of policy in the Reagan administration at the Pentagon, and also as probably the—one of the nation's leading military historians. He's been at every conflict we've had not as an implementer warfighter, but as the guy writing about it.

So they're both—they come to it with different perspectives, different wars—Bing West was Vietnam and Abizaid was everything since—but I think they'll in some ways have some very similar conclusions.

First of all, to get right off the bat, I think that we have—when we talk about humanitarian intervention—and you guys got all aspects of it in the previous panel—it's everything from tsunami relief that the United States military does, to maybe military intervention that morphs into nation-building.

The one that's humanitarian assistance, let's just put that aside for now because that's not really where we run into a lot of trouble. And the military intervention part—Iraq, Afghanistan—those are interesting topics but probably not the venue and purview of this conversation.

So I think what we'd like to do is focus on what happens in the middle, when military intervention ends up being humanitarian intervention and nation-building, or when humanitarian intervention mission creeps up.

So what I'd first like to ask the two of you is how do you see military humanitarian intervention, and then we'll go into more specifics of events.

Why don't you start, General?

ABIZAID: OK. Well I want everybody to know that this opportunity to be here in New York is getting in the way of me being at game three of the World Series.


ABIZAID: But I am going to game four of the World Series tomorrow. I'm delighted to be here.

Look, policy issues are best left for people that deal in policy, and those generally don't happen to be soldiers. We implement policy.

And I'd like to say, having been from Grenada, Macedonia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Lebanon, et cetera, et cetera, Iraq, Afghanistan, and—and other places—Somalia—you know, there are—there are certain things that you have to have as a person to implement one of these missions, whether you're a young officer, like I was in the early days, or whether I was a very senior officer.

And the most important thing that military people have to have is clarity of mission. I mean, answer the question, "What is it you want me to do? What are we trying to get done? How long do you want me to be there? And what assets are you going to allow me to bring?"

And it's going to be surprising to many of you, but we also like to know, what is the civilian oversight that we should expect in this mission and how are we going to interact with that? And then, what are other agencies of the United States government going to bring? Or what are the other assets that the international community is going to bring?

Also have to say, you need to make sure that you're giving good military advice to your political leadership, you understand that the laws of physics apply to getting forces from the United States to Somalia. It's always very interesting, you know, the president makes a decision, we're going to intervene. Within 24 hours everybody says, "Where are you guys? Why aren't you here?" Well, it takes a long time to move 15,000, 20,000 people, et cetera.

And then the other thing I'd say is that, with regard to resources, it happens on every one of these missions short of full-scale war, and that is that military commanders are limited in what they can bring. And this creates huge problems for us. We grow up in organizations that are trained and live together, fight together, know how to do everything together, and then when the mission comes up a political leader will say, "You can't take more than 10,000 men even though you're commanding a 15,000-person organization. You can't bring heavy weapons even though if you get in a fight your heavy weapons are essential to your success or failure."

So, you know, clarity of mission, understanding what the dynamic of the end state is, what does the political leadership want us to do, where are we going to get help from outside agencies—these things are hugely important for us, and almost always at the beginning of an operation we get it wrong.

MCFARLAND: Go ahead. Over to you.

WEST: We have it wrong right now. And by that I mean if—if you stand back, I always thought that it said we were humanitarian interventions. Now to me, as a Marine, that means if there's been a natural disaster—hurricane or something—we're going to go in and help. Or, in the nobility of spirit that only America shows compared to anyone else, if you have a case like Ebola with a—with a disease that everyone is terrified of, we send our military to help. That is a humanitarian intervention.

I think of military intervention when, without thinking it quite through, what the president means when he sends the military—and this is not humanitarian—you're going to intervene in Libya or something, you're going to kill people. You're going to kill people in order to achieve an objective that you think helps humanitarian reasons, but you're using force and the intent is to use that force to get your way. I distinguish hugely between humanitarian and military. And I also distinguish between wars and interventions.

Max Boot, his wonderful book, "The Savage Wars of Peace," he indicates that even from our starting in 1781 we've been constantly intervening somewhere, but we accelerated after World War II. And I was just looking it up last night, and even the scholars disagree whether it's been 200 interventions or 180, but it's up in that scope of military interventions, which average two a year since 1945.

And when I consider how better off the world is today than it was in 1945 if you measure it by structural stability, if you measure it by economic growth, if you measure it by the opportunities for individual freedom, both we as a nation and the world have benefitted by this restrained policeman we call the United States that occasionally intervenes for a very short period of time. Most of your interventions are a week, two weeks.

And the president, as the commander in chief, does it. And he does it for the—generally with a—with no warning and without ever really consulting with anyone else. And then he gets back out. And we've had 200 of these, or 150, or some.

Then I make another distinction, which is, sir, what you were talking about earlier. When does suddenly the intervention gradually become a war? Korea gradually became a war. Vietnam, classic example of becoming a war.

No one would repeat our strategies toward Iraq or Afghanistan because none of us envisioned that the first intervention would end up with full-scale wars that would go on for a decade. And I conclude by saying right now the thing we call the intervention toward ISIS, I—I think it's a war. It is an absolute war.

But so far the president—and the president, in my judgment, once you're in a war, has to change his frame of reference. And in Iraq and Afghanistan with both presidents we didn't see it, and we're not seeing it today with President Obama. That is, once you are at war then your objective has changed. You're not there for humanitarian reasons; you're there to kill the other guy and to destroy him.

And we've gotten to the point now with the current intervention where the president has said, "My objective is to destroy ISIS." That means kill. That means put somebody six feet under the ground. And there are thousands of them. And they are over a huge area.

That's not an intervention. That's war. And once you've done that you have to, as the leader of the country, unite the country as an entire whole and say, "We're going to fight. We have an enemy. We're no longer intervening; we're at war with somebody."

So I make these distinctions between humanitarian, military intervention, and war. And I think right now we're at war.

ABIZAID: Just a quick follow-on to what Bing said—and military fellows over there, would you raise your hands? Let us know how we're doing, OK?


ABIZAID: I would just...

MCFARLAND: He has four stars, so really, don't let him know.

ABIZAID: It's really important to understand that of the tools that you have to be issued by the National Command Authority is most essential one called rules of engagement. And a military commander prefers rules of engagement with this much width. And in a humanitarian operation you almost always go into it with your rules like this.

And as Bing said, as the—as the mission mutates, as mission creep sets in, as things start to affect, as they always do in military operations, the outcome, it's very difficult at times for those rules to get back to where you need them to do what you have to do when you have to close with and destroy the enemy.

MCFARLAND: In talking about mission creep, and—and certainly when Bing talks about over—you know, almost 200 interventions in American history, can you look in your experience which ones have gone well, these humanitarian / military interventions, and which ones have failed?


ABIZAID: Well I—I've been on so many of these and—and sometimes you have to make sure you're thinking long-term. Because it's a strategic outcome that you're looking for, and the strategic outcome has yet to be achieved in Bosnia, by the way, nor has it been achieved in Kosovo, nor has it been achieved even in Macedonia. We've had short-term success; we've had mid-term success.

But the place where I was personally involved as a parachute battalion commander where I thought we had the most clarity, the best rules of engagement, the most efficient chain of command was in Operation Provide Comfort. We went in there, we had a very clear mission to relieve the suffering, then to establish a safe haven for the Kurds to come back into northern Iraq, then to protect them from the Iraqi army, and we were able to do that in a way that I thought was one of the most successful interventions of its time that I've ever been involved in.

Interventions that go badly or become prolonged are those where you start off with what I would call a—a historic incorrect assumption in the planning. And, for example, in the Iraq operation I would call that—there was a heroic assumption that this was about liberation, and it created a dynamic and force structure and the way that we established the mission to begin with that constantly found us having to catch up with the problems of insurgency after the initial very successful combat operations.


WEST: I think the interventions are most successful when the stakes for both us as the intervening power and those with whom we're intervening either for or against—when the stakes are not existential, when they're somewhere in the middle. And so Dominican Republic, '65, hate to bring you all the way back there, or Lebanon in '58, but any—anything where it's neither side wants to push this to total war and destruction. Then you look at us as the 600-pound gorilla and you basically say, "You know, I'd better give way to the United States on this because with one blow they can push this thing to a degree I don't want to go."

So when the stakes are intermediate, our interventions work well. When the other side is seeing this as an existential threat and we're still seeing it, as John was indicating, as something we can do but we're not fully committed, then we get smacked right in the face. And that's what happened in Vietnam, and that's what happened, I think, in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's what's happening now in Syria.

Conversely, remember Hungary, when President Eisenhower looked at Hungary and the question was of—of watching those poor people be slaughtered in—in '56 when they arose against the Soviet Union, he basically said, "I'm not willing to go that far for them so I'm just staying out. There won't be any intervention."

And ironically, I'd just like to follow up a little bit on a personal note with General Abizaid relative to both in Iraq and Afghanistan and now in Syria that we underestimated the ferocity of these son-of-a-bitches who are called the Islamist terrorists. In April of—April of—March or April, I forget which month, John, I was out there with a—with a Marine company when the four-star General Abizaid came and he was coming into the town hall of Fallujah to get together with the sheikhs and he was going to lay the law down to them, you know, because we had had a helicopter shot down and—and he was very—he was furious about this and he insisted he was going to have this meeting. And I remember the Marines were saying, "We're going to have the four-star and he's going to go into the town hall and we're going to protect him?" And I said, "Yes, that's—that's the deal."

And we all knew this was going to be a firefight, and sure enough, I don't think John got—got through five words before the—before the RPGs started in, and then the mortars on the roof. So we ended up in this huge fight because the mullah who was in charge of the town by the name of Janabi was an absolute dedicated Islamist. And interestingly enough, afterward when—when John got out with just a couple of nicks Janabi stayed in charge and then left. He went to Damascus, and today he's back in Fallujah running Fallujah.

I mean, you're dealing—you're dealing with some—some real dedicated diehards. But we still have John with us.


MCFARLAND: Well, this is the Council on Foreign Relations and they've checked the guns at the door.

Let me...

ABIZAID: Thank you, Bing. Thanks for bringing that up.


WEST: Well I know you had others—other close ones, but that one, I mean, you're under RPG and mortar fire in the middle of the town was, you know...

ABIZAID: Well, I mean, that's also the problem with these things. Look, of course the guys that have it the worst are the young privates that are down there at the lowest level.

But in this type of operation, whether you're a humanitarian worker or a soldier or a Marine or a four-star general, it's very, very dangerous. And we should never go into these missions with the frivolous notion that it's going to go as we want it to go. It's very dangerous; it's very difficult.

And we need to give the people that are going to implement it the tools necessary—and I'd—I'd just like to add one other thing that I failed to mention before, is ideally you want to do this with a coalition. But just as Bing said, it works best when you have—when you have viewpoints on the various sides of what we're trying to accomplish and there's some relative agreement that it could be accomplished.

It works best when the allies are in general agreement about what we're trying to do and they have the same rules of engagement. We had that in—in Provide Comfort. We went in with Italian, the Spanish, British, et cetera, Dutch parachute battalions, and we all knew that we could depend upon one another. We all had the same rules of engagement. When we'd had to fight or had to maneuver against the Iraqis we were all very confident of how that would work.

In Kosovo it was very interesting. We Americans had very, very restrictive rules of engagement. I remember the French got in trouble once in Mitrovica and they asked for American assistance, and our rules of engagement were such that we were unable to bring assistance to them.

We always think of ourselves, of course, as having the biggest, baddest gorilla on the block and we can do all things and be all things to—to all people, but sometimes we fail our allies, as well.

But in Iraq this was particularly troublesome, and also in Afghanistan, where one country is there doing peacekeeping, another country is there being humanitarian operations, and only one or two countries, generally the United States and the U.K., are there to make their forces available to fight the enemy that is coming after everybody.


WEST: If I could...

MCFARLAND: Yes. Please jump in.


WEST: ... pointed to another dilemma with the rules of engagement, which is empathy versus hostility. And in both Iraq and Afghanistan our overall goal was to persuade the people that we, the United States, represented goodness and light, which we think we really did, and we were trying to help things.

And that caused, especially toward the end in Afghanistan, a very restrictive set of rules from the top, where Karzai was always bitching about us and we weren't just willing to say the man was hopeless, so that from the top you would get these rules saying, "Be very, very careful about using fire support. Try not to kill any Afghan civilians."

At the same time, I was down there with this platoon that I was writing this book about, and this platoon used seventy-eight airstrikes in 200 days. We were in a fight every single day, and we started with fifty and we had three killed, nine amputations, and twelve gunshot wounds before it was over. We lost half the platoon.

We're down there in this, just smacking it, and—and the rules from the top were you weren't supposed to be using air—airs because you might antagonize some people. So you, again, you have to get your mission straight and—and determine, are you there for humanitarian reasons or are you there because you're in a war and you're going to kill the other guy? And it got very, very confused.

And now we're going to bump into this big time coming up because if—if the president says we cannot have anybody on the ground that means you can't have anyone there with eyes on the target. So you're going to be bombing, as we're now bombing and people are urging more bombing, and sooner or later we're going to kill a lot of civilians.

ABIZAID: I'd like to—to come up a bit strategically, also, to make a couple of points. After the fall of the Soviet Union it was pretty clear that we had excess capacity in the armed forces. So we were able to do things that didn't necessarily affect the vital interests of the United States of America.

But if I were to look at the current strategic environment, I'm, as a soldier, getting very nervous from a strategic point of view. I think we have entered into a period of accumulating strategic risk.

And while it was one thing in the period 1991 to 2003, 2004 or so to commit forces, now you've got a rising China, you have an aggressive Russia, and you—you no longer have Islamic terrorist groups; you have an Islamic terrorist jihadist state that has—that has formed in the middle of a disintegrating Middle East, where the old World War I-imposed European order is falling to pieces.

And this is a revolutionary change, and when the enemy assumes state-like attributes your ability to intervene in things that don't necessarily affect your vital national interests become less. And then if at the same time you decide because of fiscal reasons that you're going to bring the size of the force down, it puts huge strain on your ability when the president says, "How can you do this?" to say to him, "Well, based on everything else we're doing, this is going to be hard."

So, you know, we are much more constrained today than we were back in the days of the fall of the—of the immediate fall of the Soviet Union.

MCFARLAND: OK. Then that begs the question, if we are now in the age of jihad and we are likely to be involved in the Middle East for another decade, maybe even another generation, can—can humanitarian / military assistance—what's different about the age of jihad?


WEST: Well, but I think John's overarching point is—is even more broad. It is the age of jihad in that we're fighting there, dying there, and killing there. But he brought up two other huge theaters. He brought up Europe and Russia. And OK, what's the danger if you're the military looking at that?

And this is why we call our forces "general purpose forces," because we can't predict one kind of war; it's all different. Therefore, you need a spread spectrum of stocks, just like we do in our own portfolios.

So if you're looking at Russia you have to be calculating—you better keep some nuclear stability, period. And then you have to be very careful of this thing that sooner or later is going to erupt, this cyber warfare. And that requires a certain set of skills that require a certain amount of money in one bin that certain people are worried about.

Then John mentioned the Pacific. We tilted to the Pacific a year ago, if you recall. We have 289 ships. We have them split roughly fifty-fifty, so we're going to take fourteen more ships and send them to the Pacific. That was our tilt.

Now I'm not sure China would really count the extra fourteen that would come to the Pacific to make the tilt, but aside from the sarcasm of that, they never came because now they've been diverted to the Middle East in order to be bombing in Syria. So you have China, which manifestly wants to have more control over its sphere of influence—that is manifest. And you have a Navy—the United States Navy is very concerned about that. Their budget's going down. The budget for cyber, et cetera, is going down.

The poor United States Army is being pulled down, and yet they're the ones that are going to be front and center with the Marines in the war on jihad, eventually. I'm convinced that that's going to happen.

And we're saying we're going to drive the—the gross national product of the—of—dedicated to defense down to 3 percent, which is the lowest since 1927. How do we do all this in an age of jihad and in an age of huge uncertainty?

So I think John is dead on when he says the risk is gradually strategically growing because we cannot put all our eggs in one basket and we don't know which one is going to erupt.

ABIZAID: If you want to take a look at this argument, I just recently shared with Bill Perry a panel called the National Defense Panel. We comment on the Quadrennial Defense Review. But it essentially says there's a huge mismatch between our strategic posture, our resources, and our ability to deal with potential problems that will undoubtedly emerge out in the mid-21st century.

So I—I think, you know, the—the issues of what's happening in the Middle East are lost on us because we sometimes want to look at the problem through the soda straw of a country-by-country problem. But when—when you look at the map and you see where jihadist activity is rampant and you look at the various groups, you know, we—we want to talk about Al-Qaeda. If I had a dollar for every general or politician that said, "We've got Al-Qaeda on the ropes," you know, I'd be a rich person because it's not really about Al-Qaeda; it's about an ideology of Islamic extremism, which unfortunately is stronger today than it was back in 2001.

This is a problem not only for the United States, but most importantly, for the people in the region. And I think in order to deal with it you have to use some form of military force to give the moderates, who fortunately are the majority of the people in the region, an opportunity to find space to govern themselves without help from the jihadists.

And in Iraq and Afghanistan we made huge mistakes about supporting sectarian forms of government, and we never properly allowed for Sunni reconciliation. So we've got the Sunnis now moving to where they think their only safe haven is, and it's one of the worst ideologies and one of the worst bunch of people I can think of, but for the people in the region, it's a better haven than they've had heretofore.

MCFARLAND: If you're talking about the mismatch between resources and existing and potential missions, then it brings the question, well, should we use the military at all for humanitarian assistance? Should we use the military for nation-building? And if we don't use the military for those, who do we use?


MCFARLAND: Bing, you know you want to talk about this.

WEST: Look, if we want to—if—no, I mean, I'm—I'm—I'm just a—I'm just a Marine. I mean, we exist to go out and fight and—and—and win battles, period.

OK, if you want to tell us to go and help some people after a hurricane or something, if we—depending on everything else going on, fine. We're all willing to be—and I think America does honestly have a—a—a moral—a feeling of moral imperative to help others and I hope we never lose that.

The dilemma becomes that—that we are being stretched so taut that where you find these resources to do what we did toward Pakistan a few years ago, where we—we went in when the floods were there and we helped, it—it—we gained nothing with Pakistan by doing it perhaps ever, but we did it because we—we felt we should. We've done the same with Bangladesh, et cetera, and God bless us.

But I don't know anymore, KT, where—where the resources are. That's my problem with it. I just don't see that we have the resources.

So I think you're going to see us very reluctantly sort of saying we're—we're kind of like France. We'll put in a little tiny meager bit but we don't have—we don't have that muscle you ordinarily think the United States has.

ABIZAID: Look, basically I—I am not a political guy. I'm not making a political comment here. We do what the president tells us to do. That's our job. And unless it is illegal, we will do it. And I think we're extraordinarily fortunate to have an armed forces that—that behaves in—in that—in that manner.

But I—I want to talk about the most important resource of all, and that's the young soldiers and Marines that have to fight the battle—and the airmen and the Coast Guardsmen and the Navy people.

And I use my own son-in-law as an example. He's a young officer in the First Ranger Battalion. He's been to Iraq or Afghanistan ten times. He has been wounded. He's got two kids. He's a heck of a soldier. He's a professional soldier. And him and about one-tenth of 1 percent of the rest of the nation are bearing this brunt.

And that's a hell of a responsibility to put on them. And as we're bringing the force down, it's interesting to me that our discussion about how we mobilize if we need to ever fight a big war is nowhere in existence.

So the ultimate responsibility of the United States is to keep us free—of the armed forces of the United States, is to protect the nation, keep us free, win our wars. And a subset of that might be humanitarian interventions, but when we start cutting into our ability to protect the nation efficiently, effectively—this is not to say we don't have waste, fraud, and abuse in the Department of Defense, right? We do, of course. And it could be more efficient.

But right now we're asking the young people that are out there defending the nation to do more with less, and that's dangerous for people that have the missions that we've assigned them. And it becomes dangerous for the nation if the accumulating strategic risk that Bing and I have talked about continues.

WEST: If I could, KT, there—there is one other aspect that I think to—relative to just what John said about who's fighting for us that's worth all of us pondering, and that is that overall, for the Marine Corps and the Army and the Navy, the dwell time is two-to-one now. It's two years at home for one year abroad somewhere. That's pretty tight.

But more interestingly is that 75 percent of all our youth do not qualify today for the military. They do not have the requisite education, intelligence, or physical abilities. Seventy-five percent are disqualified.

And of the remaining 25 percent, we are trying to recruit roughly one out of every 200 males coming out of high school. And we're doing it successfully because we only have—when John mentioned his son-in-law being in the rangers—those who are closest to the combat are only about 10 percent of all our forces, including the Marines. The true fighting force at—at the—at the tip of the spear is very small, so you only require a tiny amount, something like one out of every 1,000 high school graduates.

But can you imagine, as John is saying, if—if suddenly we get up against somebody like China or you get into a big—some big kind of war where you need more than 20,000 or 40,000 infantrymen, we have no way of reaching out.

George Casey, who was—who was the chief of staff of the Army and a wonderful man, you know, George says this really concerns him because if we suddenly had to do it we have no way of—of knowing who's qualified and we'd have to sift through an awful lot, so there'd be no sudden surge that we could go to war with—no sudden surge whatsoever. Imagine 75 percent of all Americans today don't qualify.

ABIZAID: I guess I really didn't address KT's question about the—the moral responsibility. I do believe we have a moral responsibility. And the other day when I was watching the films and being up at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point—I unfortunately get the opportunity to see the—the great media blitz of ISIS better than most, but to see young Shia soldiers being herded into a ditch and being shot in the back of the head, it tells me exactly what I used to see on the news reels of innocent noncombatants in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia being herded into those ditches by the—by the Nazis and shot in the back of the head.

And we do have a responsibility to do what we need to do to stop that sort of thing from happening. But if we do it we have to do it in a way that will be effective and not inadvertently make the problem worse.

MCFARLAND: Can I just ask—we're going to now go to questions, but can you raise your hand for all those who are either in the military, have been in the military, or have family members in the military? Small number, and this is the elite of the elite, so I think that says something, as well.

All right. Now we're going to go to questions from the members.

I'll go back there. Gentleman?

Wait for the mic, tell us who you are, and ask your question succinctly.

QUESTION: OK. Paul Skoczylas, I work for the World Food Program in Jerusalem. I've been involved in humanitarian interventions on the humanitarian side, not the military side, in a lot of different places in the Middle East.

I think KT asked a good question about should humanitarians do humanitarian work only and leave the military to the military. There's a third track that I think you alluded to but I—I really would like to hear your opinion on, is the political track, whether our leaders can articulate the national interests in humanitarian interventions.

We talked this morning, it was mentioned by the panel that the costs for messing up an intervention are very high; the costs of doing it right or the—the benefit of doing it right for political leaders is often very low. So the political calculus is basically "don't do this."

So I just wanted to ask you about the political track, because from my perspective, do we need more military on the ground in all the Arab countries right now? I'm not sure. Do we need humanitarians doing their work? Yes. It's life-saving.

But the political track, I feel like, that's missing, and a lot of people on the ground feel that way. So I wanted to ask you, from the—do you think our leaders are doing a good enough job in—in the—sort of doing the diplomatic work, stating the national interests and why we should be involved?

ABIZAID: I'm glad you asked Bing that question.


WEST: And my answer would be a firm no. I reviewed both the books of Secretary Gates and Secretary Panetta, and I must tell you I was astounded.

These two political appointees came right out and said that the current commander in chief lacks decisiveness and does not want to be a leader in these sorts of things, and that's just a fact.

I'll tell you what really got to me was, can you imagine—I don't know what other military is being sent to West Africa to help with Ebola. Now there was a noble cause, and yet I saw no effort on the part of our commander in chief as our leader to state, "Look what we're doing." It was just, "I sent them and that was the end of it."

No, it wasn't the end of it. It should have been, "Look at the decency of this country and what we're willing to do." If you're a leader you must lead. You can't just avoid this. And so far I'd say that our, unfortunately, the current commander in chief, according to both secretaries of defense and according to Mrs. Clinton in her book, is not a leader.

ABIZAID: So I'm not going to comment on how a political leader is doing, but I am going to comment on your notion of political, humanitarian, military. It used to be that the humanitarian and the military could coexist without having to be together, and we saw that in particular in Somalia and we saw it in very many other places where we've intervened and, you know, people like the Doctors Without Borders were very, very adamant about not having military people around them. We would try to provide an environment and we would coordinate deliveries of food or medical services, et cetera, and that was a very effective way of doing things because the other side of the conflict would often honor what the humanitarian people were doing.

In today's battlefield that no longer exists. The neutrality of the humanitarian groups has been taken away by the jihadists. And this creates a dynamic where, whether we like it or not, when we make a decision to go in on this we have got to work together and we have to establish some protocols for doing better than we've done in the past.

I'd also say that in my experience, where you have firm civilian clarity and control of the mission, like we did in Bosnia—as much as I didn't particularly like Carl Belt, he was a firm civilian leader in that mission—you have better effects from the other aspects of the mission than when you have either no civilian command and control or the lack of it.

So seems to me that sometimes we try to go to civilian control before we're ready. We tried to do that in Iraq. We tried to go to civilian administrators when it should have really belonged to military people until we got through the stability phase.

And then we went excessively towards military people without having firm political endeavors moving forward in that particular mission.

So I think when you're moving a coalition in, if you can agree upon the political command and control structures and have—have it really well established and clearly agreed upon by the various coalition members, you'll find out that ultimately it's going to be much more successful. That was the case in Bosnia; that was the case in Kosovo to a certain extent, and it hasn't been in some of the other more difficult missions that we've been on.

MCFARLAND: Over here, the lady in the black sweater?

QUESTION: Sorry for those of you who had to hear me on the first panel.

Since we're talking about lessons learned I wonder, General, what you think the lessons learned are from the Iraq intervention, and particularly given that a few weeks ago we had heads of state—the head of state of Turkey and the foreign minister of Iran, bordering states, who attributed the rise of—of Islamic state and jihadism in part to the American intervention in Iraq. Of course, as Mr. Bing would know, Janabi and the Shura Council, the beheaded—the Mujahideen Shura Council in Fallujah didn't exist before the American intervention and, you know, the—whether—just the very image of having an American general in Fallujah laying down the law to the people of Fallujah, whether that, you know, is—is part of the problem.

ABIZAID: Well, the real problem is the spread of Islamic jihadism. And this is not an American problem; it's a civilizational problem of the Muslim world. And if they want to exclude women from their rightful abilities to be educated, to be participants in—in the future of their—their civilization, if they want to kill people without—without any sort of—of remorse, if they want to do all the things that they're doing and the have been doing well before we ever intervened in Iraq, I would say we've all got a big problem.

What we have to do is figure out how to help the people in the region help themselves. And that means we have to squarely face the problem of Islamic extremism, call it what it is, face it, help the people in the region help themselves against it to the extent that we can, but not kid ourselves that what's going on here is some aberration caused by some intervention a few years ago.

This is a revolutionary civilizational movement, and we're either going to all work together to stop it or we're all going to suffer from it. And I look at it—and of course, I'm a simple military guy—as I look at it, we're moving towards not being able to stop it.

And I think it is very important that we get our act together internationally and with the good people in the region, which are many, and of whom I have great respect. The reason I went to Fallujah to tell them to get their act together is not for the fact that I wanted to kill those guys; it was because I wanted the good people in Fallujah to have a chance, and they didn't have it with the people that were there.

MCFARLAND: Gentleman in the middle, in the center?

First this man in the, yes, with the beard, and then secondly the one with the right hand on the mic. So first, second.

QUESTION: Saul Mendlovitz, with Coalition for United Nations Emergency Peace Service. I want to use moral responsibility and feeling as the entree into a very specific question.

What, if anything, should the United States do with regard to Syria? What, if any kind of intervention, specifically should we be doing?

MCFARLAND: That's a political question more than—as much as anything. Maybe another way of asked it would be, what could we do?

QUESTION: I'm asking whether the military should be involved and I'll ask it that way...


QUESTION: ... but the question I have is what is our obligation to the over 200,000 that have already been killed and another couple of hundred thousand that are down the pike? What, if anything, should we do about that?

WEST: Since I am unfettered, General, do you want me to launch out, as a Marine would, first?

ABIZAID: Yes. You're very good at it. I think you should.

WEST: I think it's pretty clear that the first thing we would do is we would go to the Sunni tribes, whom we betrayed. If you consider what happened in Iraq, the reason that the awakening began was that Sheikh Sattar, who was in my judgment the George Washington of the Sunnis in—in Anbar Province and in Iraq, before he was assassinated I asked him, "Why did you fight us for three years and then come over?"

He said, "You didn't understand." He said, "We Sunnis had to convince ourselves."

What he meant was they had to convince themselves that they could not come back into power again over the Shiites. And he said, "Once we had convinced ourselves, we wanted to be with the strongest tribe," the strongest tribe meaning they wanted to come over to the American side. They never said they were coming over to the, as they call them, the—the—the Persians in Baghdad.

But we let them down because when we left completely we left them to the tender mercies of—of Maliki. So the notion—the proposition today that—that we are now working on, is that we are going to persuade those same tribes to come back again under Baghdad and that the Iraqi army is once again going to seize Fallujah.

Me, as a Marine, I'd say you had to stop. Stop. Sykes-Picot drew these boundaries in 1916, so we can even go back beyond the Bush administration. And they're no longer intact.

So we've sent out our ODA teams, our Special Forces teams, to work with them in order—with these tribes who know us quite well; they really know us—to—to say basically, "We're going to be here with you and we're going to call in that air, which is the big equalizer. And we're going to put some backbone into you, and this time we're going to do what we basically did with the Kurds. We're not going to put you back under Baghdad. We're not going to say you're not going to be under Baghdad, but we're not going to say you are going to be under Baghdad. And who knows what time will—will—will bring? And I'm not going to pay any attention to this border with Syria. Wherever those bastards are, we're going after them and we are going to kill them. And how you work that out later, I'm going to leave to somebody else."

And I would be very careful with Baghdad because Baghdad right now has—General Suleiman is there. This son-of-a-gun who is in charge of the Quds force is now in Iraq. And I don't get it. And the Iranians are still overflying Iraq when they're going to help Damascus.

And I would basically say to the—the prime minister in—in Iraq, that buck stops now. And no more of these overflights. And then I would just absolutely put a no-fly zone on Assad and say, "You're out of here. Sooner or later we're coming for you, but you are not going to be attacking these people. And every time you do I'm going to unleash hell against you."

So if you left it up to a Marine, I'd fight a war.

ABIZAID: So from a strategic perspective, I think it's really important that we get the notion of Syria and Iraq and Lebanon and Turkey out of our mind, because the Middle East as we know it has—is in the middle of reordering itself in a historic way. It's as profound as what happened to Yugoslavia.

The old order is breaking down; the new order is starting to form, and it is going to be very, very difficult to put Humpty Dumpty back together. There's an independent state in Kurdistan, for all intents and purposes. There is an independent Sunni state, unfortunately, that's—you might as well call Sunnistan, that expands into both Iraq and Syria and ultimately will try to go into Jordan and northern Lebanon.

You know, these are profound changes that the international community has to first admit that it's happening, and then they have to come up with an action plan, in conjunction with the good people in the region, of how you have to—to deal with this thing. I believe that you have to make the decision. Either you're going to intervene or you're not.

But if you make the decision that you're going to intervene without your full capability of assets, you are doomed to failure. And so I think land forces have a role, whether we like it or not, and that role is to close with and kill the enemy of our country.

One of the things that makes ISIS so strong is, unlike the rest of the Arab armies out there, they're willing to close with and destroy their enemies, even under American air bombardment. And the—the best armed forces in the world to be able to deal with this problem that have operational and intelligence capabilities that allow them to be successful on the battlefield are the land forces of the United States.

By the way, I have never been a fan of occupation in the Middle East. Didn't work for the Romans, didn't work for the British, and it didn't work for us. But I am an advocate of using armed forces wisely, and that can be done in a way where you station forces and move them about the battlefield to have military effect so that then the politicians can do what they need to do, which is coordinate the intelligence, the diplomatic, the economic, the educational actions necessary to knit a society back together again.

Military forces only buy you time, and this is the great problem that we Americans have. We think they do everything. They don't.

The political action then has to swing into action in a coordinated and a coherent fashion, and I don't see any evidence of that taking place with regard to Syria regardless of what the problem is.

WEST: You know, it's funny, when—when the general was talking, I have just been thinking of saying, you know, "You can't put Humpty Dumpty back together again," when the general said it. It's staring us all in the face but we don't want to admit it.

MCFARLAND: OK. Gentleman in the middle with his hand on the mic?

QUESTION: I'm Bill McGowan, journalist, author; I also run a blog called Coloring the News, and this is an exceptionally great panel. I really appreciate it.

My question is for Bing—I'm a big fan.

You mentioned that we need at the front end to do a better job at assessing whether our intervention represents an existential threat to a party in any given conflict. That seems interesting.

I'm wondering, though, how good are we at assessing whether our intervention itself might lead to the perception or crystallize the perception in a party that may not have seen us as an existential threat at the front end but as it proceeds? I'm thinking with certain peacekeeping efforts in the recent history—the British in Northern Ireland; the Indian peacekeeping force in Sri Lanka in the late '80s, early '90s; Somalia. I mean, even Iraq you could—you could look at our relationship with the Sunnis in that light.

Are we good at sort of kind of understanding the Heisenberg effect, at what kind of—our intervention might do, you know, and—and—and looking at all those variables, or is that something we need to do a better job with in terms of our checklist going into certain conflicts?

WEST: I think, Bill, it's the latter, and—and I say this because the tendency of the—that should be the job of the intelligence community. When you're in the—when you're in the meetings just below the president, and sometimes if you're a back-seater in the meetings with the president, there's a tradition that—that the intelligence community starts first and they lay out the contracts, especially on the enemy side. But, you know, you're—you're saying something where the agencies are very reluctant to—to get into because someone will pin them for it later, which is whether you're—you're causing an effect by—by what you're starting to provoke.

And so I'll turn it over to John, but I have not really heard somebody really stand up and—and—and show those signals, "Look, sir, if we do this, that may be taken as existential by these people," although son-of-a-bitches may have it already in mind anyway. So you have to be prepared to go a lot harder than you're thinking you have to go.

But I very rarely have heard the intelligence community come out and put it that starkly.


ABIZAID: Look, these things are all very difficult. I had just redeployed from Kurdistan; we had been there in—at the—at the end of the Iraq War—the first Iraq War, and my battalion was stationed in Italy and I was minding my own business, having a good time, and then I was posted to the War College and subsequently given the opportunity to go to Stanford University while I was there. And so my wife and I were having a great time because we're from that part of the country.

And I get a phone call and they say, "We're intervening in Somalia and we need you to go to the 10th Mountain Division Headquarters in upstate New York and talk to them about your experiences," which I did. And then I found out that oh, by the way, I was going with them.


ABIZAID: Anyway, so we're there and the mission is actually going quite well, and we're really helping a lot of people and we're feeling very good about ourselves. And I'm talking to some Somali tribesmen around the—the campfire at a place called Baidoa, and one of them—we're talking in Arabic and he says to me, "You know, you guys don't have very good security on your convoys and that—that could be a real problem for you later on."

I said, "Well, what do you mean?"

He said, "You know, once everybody gets—gets fed we're going to start attacking you guys because you really don't belong here and you have a lot of good guns, and you have good vehicles, and we're going to capture"—I mean, it's a warrior culture, right?

And I can guarantee you that in the run-up to the intervention people weren't thinking about what was going to happen. And sure enough, what happened? We then started to have a war with the tribes.

MCFARLAND: Gentleman over here? He's patiently had his hand up.

QUESTION: My name is Donald Shriver. I'm the former president of Union Seminary up at Morningside Heights.

Over the years I've had teaching responsibilities for people in schools of business, journalism, medicine, and religion. All these professions have in common often an international commitment. These days these are dangerous professions, given the—the new face of jihadism.

I'd just like to follow up your comments on what is the proper relation between the humanitarian professions and the military. It is as though we can't do our work in all of these other countries of the Middle East without military profession—protection, and yet we can't—we don't have integrity to do that work with military protection.

What would be your advice as to how we should think about this conflict?

ABIZAID: Sir, that's a wonderful question. I have incredible respect for the people that are willing to go in the most difficult parts of the world to help other people—without guns. You know, the humanitarian workers are—are to me just great heroes.

When the situation becomes dangerous I think it's necessary when there's a proximity of military force to at least coordinate with one another. It's hard for them to cooperate because it in their mind hurts their neutrality, but when the neutrality doesn't exist on a particular battlefield then you have to cooperate.

And I—I think to a certain extent we—we have to do more to figure out how to do this better. We need to have more opportunities to talk. We need to have more opportunities to explain to one another what we do and why we do it.

You know, we have a duty to protect the United States of America and to follow the orders of the president. You may think that we are always looking for opportunities to go to war, but actually the contrary is true.

We believe that we shouldn't go to war unless we absolutely have to, and when we do we like to have people that have the skills that are the—the doctors, the engineers, and the professionals to come help us. One way of doing that is you can mobilize them as part of a broader national mobilization. I don't think we've done that very well. You can bring them into the National Guard.

And importantly, we—we have, in a way, kind of policified the armed forces, and it—it is bothersome to me. You need to go from what the armed forces do then to be a police capacity, and the best people to build police capacity are former policemen and people that are experienced in law enforcement.

In order to normalize a nation you've got to get in that direction, and military forces do that OK but not well enough.

So the—the short answer to the question is, I think we have got to do more to work with one another, to talk with one another, and at the same time respect the missions. I understand people don't like being around people that have the mission to—to deal with the use of force, but I also understand that in order for them to get their job done they need some modicum of protection.

We ought to be able to determine that before they go in. We ought to be able to offer them training so they can at least be aware of what the threats and the problems are, as opposed to just going on out there alone and unafraid.

MCFARLAND: Gentleman over here?

QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Schuyler Vreeland and I'm with Deutsche Bank, and one of the common threads that I've noticed between both of these panels is the need for regional buy-in and financial resources in both military and humanitarian interventions.

And in the context of our allies in the Gulf, what is the impact of their financial resources and their regional buy-in going forward? And as a follow-up to that, are we going to see more instances like the one with Vice President Joe Biden speaking his mind but then having to reel back in his comments about the impact of the Gulf monarchies in funding various organizations in the rest of the Middle East?

MCFARLAND: John, you speak fluent Arabic. You've met all of the leaders in the Middle East. Are they buying in with their checkbooks?

ABIZAID: Look, there are a lot of—a lot of places where there is buy-in and people are—the amount of fear that people have for ISIS is unlike anything I've seen. The Middle Easterners deal with a lot of violence, but the amount of fear that I sense today—and I go out there frequently and, of course, I have a lot of friends in the Lebanese Christian community, et cetera—the Christian communities are incredibly petrified about what's going on out there.

There are sources of funding within every corner of the globe that manage to find their way into the ISIS coffers or to the jihadist cause, and I think no nation has figured out how to stop it. When I was in the Middle East and working with the UAE in particular, they're very committed to putting their forces in harm's way to dealing with what they need to do to be able to stop this threat. I mean, for them it's existential.

And so we shouldn't underestimate what they're doing, but they are conflicted in many respects. You know, on the one hand they—they want to help the Iraqi government, which is Shia, which they really don't want to help; and on the other hand they don't want to help Bashar al-Assad, and in order to really help him effectively they've got to give some sort of support to some of the Islamist elements—I'm not saying the jihadist elements, but the Islamist elements of the resistance, which are more effective than what I would call the moderate elements.

So look, this is about as confusing a patchwork of problems that I've seen, but they are using their resources in ways that I think are effective. I was surprised to be in Saudi Arabia and see the Saudi Arabians' program for dealing with jihadists that they identify. They go to the—the person's family, they—they put a full-court press on trying to bring the person back into what they would call the normalcy of civil society.

It's only through these kind of measures that we'll be successful. We can buy them time and give them help, but ultimately the good people in the region got to figure out how they're going to stop this themselves. Probably not a good answer to the question, but we should not underestimate how worried the average person is over there about what is happening.

WEST: Conversely...the converse, I think, John, of that that infuriates us, and especially the journalists who are watching it all the time, is that we put ourselves with our own allies in—in, I think, the terrible position of not asserting ourselves, and that is we gave all this money to Iraq and they're thieves. We gave all this money to Afghanistan and the Afghans are thieves and we know it. And we know they're stealing systematically on a huge basis and we know who the people are who are doing it and because our concept was nation-building, we conferred upon these punks sovereignty so that they have the right to steal while we do nothing about it, and it is absolutely, in my judgment, infuriating that—that the—the troops, the Iraqi troops who fell apart in Mosul have not been paid in three months. Not a cent.

And the only way we pay, all the way down in—in Helmand, where—where I was with this—these Marines until we pulled out, the only way we—we paid is that we sent a helicopter all the way up to Kabul who got the money and we paid them because we absolutely did not trust the Afghan system. And that continues today.

The general—our commanding general over there today, General Campbell, every month he pays the—the Afghan army. He does not allow that to go through the Afghan system because it would be stolen.

I don't have the solution for it but I think we've been a little bit patsies about not just taking some of these guys and saying, "You're fired. You're out of here." It drives us at every level a little bit crazy, the—the—the degree—and you know what it also indicates? They don't give a damn. And that really pisses you off. They're stealing from their own.

So, as John indicates, it's a very complex problem.

ABIZAID: Thanks, Bing. I tell you, I—we could, of course, stay here all day talking about this, but as much as I abhor what the ISIS stands for and what they do, I'll also tell you that when they take over a Sunni village one of the first things that happen—happens is they'll get bulldozers and they'll pull the trash out of the streets. They'll get diesel fuel to the generators and cause electricity to flow.

They'll tell people, "We're going to live by the Sharia, and this is what it means, and you're going to follow it, and we're going to chop off a few heads but most of you are going to be happy that we've got stability here as opposed to what we've had." And corruption, while it's not completely absent, is less under them than what they've experienced for most of their lives.

So that's what makes this ideology so difficult. And we've got to find a way to find good, honest people willing to attack corruption that we—we can collectively work with to hold accountable, like Bing said. I agree with him completely.

WEST: And I would just finish with one little thing. You know what we haven't seen yet, which I think we are going to see over the next three or four years? We haven't yet seen, John, a—an Arab strongman emerge on our side. You know, we haven't seen a—a—a Sadat or a Nasser.

I think eventually somebody is. I think eventually there is going to be a strongman who emerges. I can't say who it's going to be but I think it—it will happen.

MCFARLAND: I think we have time for just one more question, because I'd also like to have each of the gentlemen give concluding remarks.

QUESTION: OK. I hope this is a good concluding question.

I'm Barbara Demick. I'm a press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

I hear a contradiction in what you're saying, General, about the—the financial constraints on the armed forces and the need to address the ISIS problem. You know, really, what is our responsibility in the Middle East?

If this is a profound historic reordering of the Middle East why is it our fight? Is it because, you know, we broke it we bought it?

And I just moved from Beijing, where I was the last seven years, and the—the Chinese attitude, another rival, is, you know, "Let's stand aside and see who—who wins and then we support the winner." Obviously the U.S. is not willing to do this but, you know, how do we resolve the tension between financial constraints and, you know, what we see happening?

ABIZAID: Look, I'm—I'm not going to get into the budgetary problems of the nation. Suffice it to say, we can afford to have an armed forces that is capable of doing what we want it to do or we can bring it down to the point where it is stretched, and right now I—I think it's stretched.

With regard to what should we do, again, we keep coming back to this question, which is a very inappropriate question for a soldier. But I will tell you, you know, I have a historical sense of things, right? In the 1905 revolution in Russia, right after the end of the—the Russo-Japanese War, there was a clear indication that there was an ideology that was afoot that was an evil ideology that had to be faced. The czarist government couldn't figure it out, and by the time 1917, 1918 rolled around we'd moved into an ideology that is historical in its sweep and very bad for, I think, the outcome of the rest of the 20th century.

Of—more of a note is the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany, and in particular, of the Nazis. How many opportunities did good people have to look at what was happening, to admit it, to talk about it, to stand against it? And yet they chose not to do so, and by the time 1939 rolls around we're engulfed in a huge war that causes hundreds of millions of casualties.

So to me, ignoring what you know to be true is a moral issue, and I think whether we like it or not—and I'm not speaking in a political sense; I'm speaking as a citizen of my country. I know what's happening over there. I've talked about it ever since I was the commander of CENTCOM, and unfortunately, it has continued to get worse.

And I say to myself, how much worse are we going to let it get?

MCFARLAND: Bing, do you want to comment on that?

WEST: Well, it would be my—the final statement that I'd be making, so...

MCFARLAND: OK. I think it's time now for each of you to have a moment to reflect on humanitarian intervention, military intervention, and your thoughts.

Bing, why don't you start?

WEST: Well, as I indicated, the humanitarian interventions are fine but they are the minority and they're really not what we're talking about. We're all in consensus about doing them if we have the resources to do them.

In terms of military interventions, the vast majority of them have been very short since 1945 and we have a more stable world because America has been active.

Right now we are in a—in an age of jihadism but I don't consider that an intervention; I do consider that a war. And when you go to war you go to war to win and you use the resources that you have to win.

We are on a current path where our commander in chief has said, "We will destroy ISIS." He then has given a list of prescriptions that make it impossible to destroy ISIS, and therefore, we are headed down a bad path that's going to have a bad ending for the next president of the United States.

ABIZAID: So look, I know when you hear two old soldiers up here talking—and I use "soldier" as a term for the best Marines I know, so it's a compliment—that you're left with the idea that—that, oh my God, what are we going to do, but look, we can do anything. We're the United States of America. We believe in a lot of things.

We make mistakes. We often go afoul of our own moral virtues and sometimes do things that we shouldn't do. But at the end of the day we're the greatest nation on earth with the power to make things better for most of the earth as long as we can figure out how to do it in a cooperative manner with other people. Unfortunately, sometimes that causes people to have to revert to the use of military force.

I think that we have a lot of challenges moving towards us as we move into the latter half of the 21st century. We will have to judge the calculus on humanitarian intervention versus our own protection, but I hope we continue to do that in a way that benefits the prosperity of our people and the continued development of others.

So I have great faith and confidence that we can do that. I don't think we should shy away from the challenges. I don't think we should back away from the debate.

I think we cannot stay in fortress America and at the same time move the world forward to a better place as we move into the latter half of the 21st century.

So yes, we need the armed forces. Yes, we need them to intervene on occasion. But more importantly, we've got to continue to stand for what we all believe in and try to do the right thing. And when we make mistakes squarely face them, talk about them, and come to a better conclusion.

MCFARLAND: I can't think of a better way to end this conversation. Thank you both very much, General Abizaid, Bing West.

Thank you all.