REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- Describing Redstone Arsenal and its surrounding industrial, business and academic community as a national treasure, one of the nation's former military leaders told a Chamber of Commerce audience Thursday that Huntsville's center of excellence will help the U.S. win on the battlefield.

Retired Gen. John Abizaid, whose 34-year military career included being the longest serving commander of the U.S. Central Command from 2003 until his retirement in 2007, spoke about Redstone Arsenal and the nation's involvement in Middle Eastern conflicts as the keynote speaker at the 74th annual membership meeting of the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce.

About 1,000 business, community and industry representatives attended the meeting at the Von Braun Center North.

Abizaid commented on Huntsville's innovation, inspiration, capability and ingenuity as a center of excellence for science and research technologies.

"This is a center of excellence that you have made," he told his audience. "This is a national treasure for the nation. You work together to build something that can be used on the battlefield, that makes our troops the most capable in the world and that allows (servicemembers) to dominate the battlefield in a way never before."

Abizaid went on to warn the contractors in the audience that, despite accomplishments in providing the military with the best equipment possible, they are entering a period when there will be less money available to fund further research and development.

"You must fight against a sporadic attempt by the government to not let you do your work, and to erect walls between you and the mission," he said.

"It is important for this center of excellence to remain alive and vibrant in this country. I have great confidence in this place and its innovative people. You know how to get the job done and you have optimism for the future."

Huntsville's center of excellence - as well as the nation -- will be threatened by the shifting of economic strength, growing competition in the international arena and the growing danger in the Middle East from extremists.

"We might try to walk away from extremists. But they will not walk away from us," Abizaid said. "That's why you must remain vibrant and successful in a period when people are worried about more basic things. We must defend our values whether we like it or not. That is essential to being successful."

The general, who served in the combat zones of Grenada, Lebanon, Kurdistan, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq, and who is one of four generals featured in the book "The Fourth Star - Four Generals and the Epic Struggle for the Future of the United States Army," spoke highly of today's Soldiers and urged his audience to hire veterans in their workplace. His own son-in-law is now serving his sixth tour of duty - five tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan - and has been wounded on the battlefield.

"When I see these young Soldiers, and I was in Iraq four months ago, I automatically know we are not in trouble," he said. "They are tough, proud, courageous and capable, and they bring a sense of great, great pride to me as a professional Soldier. This group of young Soldiers will lead us out of problems."

And, as they leave the military, Abizaid said companies like those in Huntsville "need to hire them, you need to put your arms around them and say 'Thank you for your service. We need you to lead our company.' They are good for your company. They are good for our country."

During his comments, Abizaid's background in Arabic culture was evident. Born in California to a Lebanese-American father and a Palestinian-American mother, he is fluent in Arabic and was the most senior U.S. military officer of direct Arab descent. In retirement, Abizaid is employed as a fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and is the distinguished chair of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, his alma mater.

Rather than viewing the war in the Middle East as a tactical war designed to achieve a short-term goal, Abizaid urged his audience to view it strategically or as part of a deliberate plan to protect freedom and American values worldwide.

He said there are four major strategic issues that can define what is happening in the world and what the dynamics are that prevent world peace.

"This is a battle between extremists and the United States of America," Abizaid said, commenting on Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom as well as terrorist plots worldwide. "They are fighting us and will continue to fight the United States of America. They are a worldwide organization attacking us at home, and in places like Europe, Indonesia, Africa.

"They are using our technology and tools to be creative against us, to become capable, to have a state-like power without state boundaries. It is a movement we have to pay attention to."

While the vast majority of Muslims in the Middle East don't want the extremists to be successful, they "can't win without the help of the United States of America. We must figure out how to help them," he said.

But the U.S. must win against extremists in more than just military ways. The U.S. must also win in others ways, including diplomatically and economically, Abizaid said.

"If we ignore this threat, if we pretend it is not religious versus extremism, we will lose our ability to confront it capably. We should never underestimate how powerful they've become," the general said.

Besides the issue of terrorism, Abizaid said another strategic issue facing the U.S. is the rise of Islamic extremist nations, such as Iran, that are aggressive, domineering and increasingly threatening.

The third strategic issue is the need for the U.S. to understand the "corrosive nature of the Arab/Israeli conflict that drives Muslims into the ranks of extremism."

And the fourth is the need for the U.S. to reduce its dependence on Middle Eastern oil.

Complicating the strategic issues, he said, is the growing proliferation of nuclear weapons in places like Iran, Pakistan and Egypt. Such proliferation heightens the importance of U.S. ballistic missile systems and space-based assets. Other complications include the growth in technology and military strength of non-allied countries and the shift of economic power from the West to the East.

A center of excellence like Huntsville can help protect the nation against its strategic threats, he said, through its academic, military and industrial partnerships that continue to make vibrant and innovative contributions to the nation's defense.

"As you celebrate being in the top 10" in several nationwide economic and community categories, the Huntsville community and Redstone Arsenal must continue to push technology forward "to protect the nation, ensure our values and ensure that in the 21st century American values remain the last best hope," Abizaid said.

"The 21st century will require the geniuses in places like Huntsville to defend the country from challenges that are surely ahead of us ... If Huntsville is emulated then we will be successful. Your challenge is to stay as good as you can be, to keep up the fight and to work to support the troops."