President Trump on Tuesday announced the nomination of retired Army Gen. John Abizaid as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia — a move that would fill a vacancy that’s been open since the administration’s first days.
Abizaid, known for serving as the commander of the U.S. Central Command and overseeing the war in Iraq, is currently the Annenberg Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and works as a private consultant.
As the head of Central Command from July 2003 to March 2007, the four-star general was the top U.S. commander in the Middle East.
The president’s pick highlights the importance he has placed on the military partnership between the U.S. and the Saudi royal court, which signed an arms deal with the U.S. worth billions of dollars last year.
Abizaid would fill the role at a time when U.S. ties with Saudi Arabia are under strain following the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Trump’s announcement comes about six weeks after Khashoggi, a U.S. resident, died at the hands of Saudi officials.
For about two weeks after the journalist’s death, Saudi leaders denied any involvement before claiming the murder was premeditated without the knowledge of King Salman or Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Trump has promised unspecified “severe consequences” for the kingdom over the killing of Khashoggi, but has said he won’t scrap the arms deal.
The Saudis have used weapons from the deal in their war against Yemen. A few weeks ago, the U.S. called for a cease-fire in the Middle Eastern country.
At Central Command, Abizaid opposed the surge of U.S. troops in Iraq, instead believing the U.S. should focus on training Iraqi forces and maintaining sensitivity to local sentiments.
Abizaid began his Army career in 1973 as an infantry platoon leader. He rose to the rank of four-star general and was the longest serving commander of Central Command, according to a White House press release.
He also served as the director of strategic plans and policy on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and then director of the Joint Staff. Abizaid graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and earned a masters in Middle Eastern Area Studies from Harvard University.
During the international crisis over Khashoggi’s death, Trump’s son-in-law and senior presidential adviser Jared Kushner assumed some of the duties of Saudi ambassador, including discussions with the royal court, while the position remained vacant.
“You can’t really deal with the highest levels of the government on the ground without an ambassador there and without someone who is constantly beating the drum for American interests,” former U.S. ambassador to the kingdom, Robert Jordan, told NPR. Jordan called Kushner an “inexperienced freelancer.”
If Abizaid is confirmed, he will succeed Obama appointee and former Pentagon official Joseph Westphal.