On Friday, November 13, Commander of U.S. Central Command Gen. Lloyd Austin, who is also a College of Education counseling graduate, was joined by U.S. Rep. Martha Roby of Montgomery for Auburn University’s second annual World Affairs Forum at the Auburn Hotel and Dixon Conference Center. The event was moderated by Gen. Ron Burgess, Auburn University’s Senior Counsel for National Security Programs, Cyber Programs, and Military Affairs.
In spite of being one of the country’s top soldiers and statesmen, Gen. Austin began the event by showing his true colors – his orange and blue colors.
“It is always great to be back in Auburn,” he said. “My wife Charlene and I are both graduates of the College of Education’s excellent counseling program. We were attracted to the program because of its top rating, and it has been a positive force in my career.”
He also gave a shout-out to the football team and encouraged Tiger fans to help beat Georgia the next day, where he would be in attendance.
Gen. Austin was honored as the College of Education’s Keystone Leader-in-Residence in 2012. He received the Alumni Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award the same year.
The forum had a question-and-answer type format. In general, Roby played more the role of a politician, speaking out on the threats posed by our rising national debt, and calling for a clearly-defined plan for combating extremists in the Middle East, where she has visited several times.
Gen. Austin was more pragmatic, noting that the challenges posed by the so-called Islamic State, or ISIL, and the shifting alliances in the Middle East are complex almost beyond the imagination.
“We tend to look at each challenge through a soda straw,” he said. “But in the Central Command region there are underlying currents of sectarianism that require a broader view and understanding. For example, it is more important in this region to identify as a Shiite or Sunni Muslim, as opposed to identifying as an Iraqi or an Iranian. Within the different religions there are struggles between moderates and extremists. And there is a youth bulge there, with lots of frustration. This is not simply a military problem. We have the military capacity to do almost anything. But these are issues that they must address. A large part of our role is to work with the region’s leadership.”
Gen. Austin’s Central Command consists of 20 countries in the “central” area of the globe, including Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, among others.
In response to a question on the Syrian refugee crisis, Gen. Austin noted again that this would ultimately require a political solution. He added that the Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war is really just an effort to prop up President Bashar al-Assad.
“Russia’s extending this despot’s hold on power in Syria could make a dangerous situation even worse,” Austin warned.
He noted that the Russian intervention made “a very complex situation even more complex,” and that even if Bashar were deposed, the power vacuum created would have unknown ramifications. Meanwhile, Russia’s military intervention there is strengthening the Iran-Hezbollah alliance, essentially in opposition of the entire Middle Eastern Sunni world, making it just another instance of shifting and dangerous uncertainties.
“Again, this requires a political situation. These are alliances and conflicts that go back hundreds of years,” Gen. Austin said.
The wide-ranging discussions covered questions about the security of Israel, the effect of lower oil prices on Middle Eastern economies, and the United Arab Emirates’ challenge of Iran’s sovereignty over two islands in the Persian Gulf. General Austin demonstrated encyclopedic knowledge of these and other regional and world complexities, answering each question with a balance of candor and diplomacy.
The event was held on a day that will long live in history. Friday the 13th was the day that coordinated attacks in Paris, attributed to ISIL, left at least 129 people dead and hundreds injured.
“One positive sign of U.S. efforts can be seen in Afghanistan,” Austin said as the standing-room-only event wound down. “Things are much better there than they were just two years ago. Our greatest weapon in Afghanistan is not military, but literacy, especially among women. This change will have effects that are irreversible.”