Created in June 2020, MEI’s Defense Leadership Series is a speakers’ forum for current and former high-level military and defense leaders from both the United States and the Middle East to discuss the most important policy issues facing the two sides. The Series was inaugurated on June 10 with a conversation with U.S. Marine Corps General and Commander of CENTCOM Frank McKenzie
In this episode, MEI Senior Fellow and Director of the Defense and Security Program Bilal Y. Saab welcomes again to the program Gen. (ret.) Frank McKenzie. Gen. (ret.) McKenzie is a former CENTCOM chief and currently serves as Executive Director of the new Global and National Security Institute at the University of South Florida, where he also directs the Cyber Florida Institute. This conversation will focus on CENTCOM’s strategic transition and U.S. policy issues in the Middle East.
Five Key Takeaways
CENTCOM is in a period of transition: With numerous conflicts in the Middle East coming to a close, CENTCOM is shifting its focus towards developing a partnership with friendly military forces in the Middle East as a means of deterrence. This shift was prompted by lessening tensions as the U.S. seeks to reduce its presence in the region while still maintaining its influence.
Drone warfare has created a newfound threat for the theater: With the rise in drone production globally, U.S. forces have likely lost air superiority. Drones present a new and startling danger for ground forces and are likely to change the scope of all future operations within the CENTCOM AOR.
The death of Qasem Soleimani had a significant impact on Iran’s decision making vis-a-vis the U.S.: General McKenzie believes that the death of Qasem Soleimani at the hands of U.S. forces aided in deterring Iran. Soleimani’s death showed that the U.S. had both the capability and the will to execute those they deemed a significant threat to their interests.
China sees the Middle East as an important choke point for the control of resources: A significant fraction of China’s hydrocarbons come through the Middle East, and there are vast mineral resources present within the region that would be extremely beneficial to China’s production if acquired.
CENTCOM views its continued support of the LAF as crucial to its diplomatic relations with Lebanon as a whole: General McKenzie states that, during his time with CENTCOM, the LAF was viewed as the only viable option to be the sole armed representative of the state.
General Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, Jr. is the former Commander of United States Central Command. Currently, he is the Executive Director of the new Global and National Security Institute and the Cyber Florida Institute at the University of South Florida. He has commanded at the platoon, company, battalion, Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), and component levels. As a lieutenant colonel, he commanded First Battalion, Sixth Marines. As the Commanding Officer of the 22d MEU (SOC), he led the MEU on combat deployments to Afghanistan in 2004 and Iraq in 2005-06. In 2006-07 he served as the Military Secretary to the 33rd and 34th Commandants of the Marine Corps. In July 2007, upon promotion to brigadier general, he served on the Joint Staff as a Deputy Director of Operations within the National Military Command Center. In June 2008, he was selected by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to be the Director of the Chairman’s New Administration Transition Team (CNATT). In this capacity, he coordinated the efforts of the Joint Staff and the combatant commands in preparing for and executing a wartime transition of administrations.
In June 2009, he reported to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul, Afghanistan, to serve as the Deputy to the Deputy Chief of Staff (DCOS) for Stability. Upon his return from Afghanistan, in July 2010 he was assigned as the Director, Strategy, Plans, and Policy (J-5) for the U.S. Central Command. In August 2012, he reported to Headquarters Marine Corps to serve as the Marine Corps Representative to the Quadrennial Defense Review. In June 2014, he was promoted to lieutenant general and assumed command of U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Central Command. In October 2015, he was assigned to the Joint Staff to serve as the Director, J-5, Strategic Plans and Policy, Joint Staff. In July 2017, he was named the Director, Joint Staff. Gen McKenzie was promoted to his current rank and assumed command of U.S. Central Command in March 2019. He retired from service in April 2022.