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Farewell to a general who saw everything so clearly

COMMENTARY | September 09, 2008

Lt. Gen. William E. Odom, who was laid to rest Monday at Arlington National Cemetery, was the earliest, most prescient and most persistent senior military critic of the war in Iraq. Here's an annotated bibliography of his commentaries.

By Dan Froomkin

Lt. Gen. William E. Odom called them exactly as he saw them. And unlike so many of his peers, he saw them very clearly.

Odom served in Vietnam, was one of the country’s leading Sovietologists, served on President Carter’s National Security Council, headed the National Security Agency under President Reagan, authored important books on intelligence and the Soviet military, and taught for two decades at Yale University.

But he was best known in recent years as the first and most persistent senior military critic of the Iraq war. Before the invasion, he described with stunning prescience the chaos such an invasion would unleash. And after the invasion, he relentlessly and cogently argued that the continued presence of American troops was doing more harm than good.

Unlike so many of his peers, he never abandoned his professional skepticism. He did not let emotion cloud his judgment. Nor was he swayed by the siren-song of conventional wisdom. Instead, he examined the facts, reached far-sighted but eminently logical conclusions, and spoke his mind.

In an interview with NPR, shortly after Odom’s death in May at the age of 75, former Carter national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski said Odom should be remembered both "as a fighter and as an intellectual, a person deeply committed to his principles, to his country and at the same time a person who could analyze in a dispassionate, realistic fashion, see opportunities, as well as the drawbacks in stands taken even by our own government." Brzezinski continued:

I think what was decisive for him was his own experience as a soldier, as an officer fighting the Vietnamese war. I think he came to realize that there are some wars that are not winnable in the conventional sense unless a democracy like the United States embarks on total national mobilization and then engages in total national annihilation of the enemy. And he knew that that is the kind of thing a democracy would not do. And he saw some real parallels between his own experience in Vietnam, which made him increasingly critical of our war efforts, and the recent war, the ongoing war in Iraq, which he felt very strongly ought to be terminated as soon as possible.

In an appreciation in Newsweek, headlined: "Three Stars, No B.S.", Evan Thomas wrote that Odom "was an ardent cold warrior, but never backward looking. Rather, he had an uncanny ability to see several moves ahead--as he did in Iraq."

An Annotated Bibliography

Odom first went public with his concerns about Iraq about six weeks before the invasion, in a February 3, 2003, Washington Post article (no longer available online):

Retired Gen. William E. Odom, a former director of the National Security Agency and military aide to President Jimmy Carter, fears that a war with Iraq will only play into the hands of Osama bin Laden and other terrorist leaders. Paraphrasing the Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz, he said, "War is a gamble, a throw of the dice. You never know how it is going to work out….

"The issue is not whether the Iraqi people will greet U.S. soldiers as their liberators, but what will they do six months after that," he said. "I find it naive and disingenuous to claim that you can create democracy in Iraq anytime soon. There is no historical record of constitutionalism in Iraq. The administration has already assured us that the U.S. will not stay there for very long, and, if that is the case, then the goal of establishing a constitutional system in Iraq is a joke."

A little over a year later, Odom spoke to another reporter – and this time it set of a small firestorm. For the same reasons that he opposed the invasion in the first place, he argued that we should leave as soon as possible. "Former General sees 'Staying the Course' in Iraq as Untenable," read the headline in the April 28, 2004, Wall Street Journal:

"We have failed," Mr. Odom declares bluntly. "The issue is how high a price we're going to pay. ... Less, by getting out sooner, or more, by getting out later?"…

Mr. Odom opposed the Iraq war before it happened. An expert in comparative politics who teaches at Georgetown and Yale, he warned that there was no reason to expect that Iraq could soon develop the ingredients for constitutional democracy: individual rights, property rights and a tax-collection system supporting a government to enforce them. The violence of recent months, he concludes, has exposed Mr. Bush's vision of doing so as a dream.

The next day, Odom was on CNN with Lou Dobbs:

DOBBS: There are many people who know you, who have great respect for your service to the nation, including your military service, who are shocked that you would say, it's time to withdraw from Iraq. Why have you -- how have you come to that conclusion?

ODOM: Well, I reached the conclusion before we went in that it was not in the U.S. interest.

And I actually -- I didn't publish anything. But I at least said to people who asked me that the issue wasn't whether we would be greeted as liberators when we came in, but how we would be treated six months after we're there. And the idea that we could create a constitutional regime that would be pro-U.S. in a short period of time there struck me as pure fantasy.

I must say, I found it hard to believe that the administration internally could make that argument convincingly to themselves. And I've just sort of been quiet since. But it seems now there is enough evidence where I can at least say not that I told you so, but that it really doesn't pay -- I would like very much to be wrong on this, but I don't see how it pays the United States to continue to go down this path….

DOBBS: Well, let's talk about it, if we may, first, from the standpoint -- there are those who will be listening to you say this and say, my God, we've got to support our troops. Irrespective of the ultimate strategic decision about withdrawal and at what point or whether we achieve success and at what point. Are you concerned about this kind of discussion first and foremost having an impact on American troops in Iraq?

ODOM: The word I've heard from what was written about me in the "Wall Street Journal" is that the troops seem to like it…You know, the troops are not dumb about this business…..

And because we have vastly too few army troops to do what the administration wants to do over there, they're really feeling the pain. So I don't think this kind of discussion would create that reaction among the troops. In fact, quite the contrary.

A week later, Odom did an interview with Bernard Gwertzman of the Council on Foreign Relations:

Gwertzman: Why did you wait until very recently to make this argument?

Odom: I held these views before the invasion. I was quoted in The Washington Post in February 2003 on my point of view. But during the first three, four, or five months after the intervention, the mood of the country was such that you really couldn’t debate this, so I decided to raise these issues again this spring because I think events are beginning to show that these judgments may be well-founded.

Odom also appeared on ABC News’s Nightline and on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, where he told Margaret Warner:

Well, the president set forth three war aims as I remember. One was to get rid of WMD there, the second was to overthrow the Saddam regime and third was to create a constitutional democracy which is pro-America. The first two can be considered either irrelevant or accomplished and the last one is the issue. And there's not going to be a constitutional regime that's pro- American anytime soon, I don't think in several decades. If that is the measure, that's the political aim, then why don't we get [out of] there soon?

In the Summer 2004 issue of The National Interest, Odom systematically laid out his position in an essay entitled "Retreating in Good Order." He wrote:

The United States should begin a strategic withdrawal from Iraq now because it was never in the interest of the United States to invade that country in the first place. The mood in the United States before the war, created by the Bush Administration and supported by both parties in Congress, made a serious public discussion of the prudence of the invasion impossible. One year later, however, such an examination is difficult to avoid because the president and his aides assured us that the Iraqis themselves would greet U.S. forces as liberators and form a liberal democratic regime friendly to the United States in a very short time--months, not years. Clearly that has not happened and will not happen soon not in years or even decades.

My arguments for withdrawal fall into roughly four categories. First, the question of war aims and whose strategic interests were served. Second, the argument that "liberal" democracy cannot be created soon, if ever, in Iraq, but "illiberal" democracy can and probably will be. Third, the implications for the United States of continuing to pursue the war. And fourth, I discuss how to reframe and address the strategic challenge the Greater Middle East presents, not just to the United States but also to allies in Europe and East Asia, including the unfinished war with Al-Qaeda.

It was more than a year later that I called Odom and asked him to write for NiemanWatchdog.org. What followed was a remarkable series of essays that over the course of three years exposed Bush administration foreign policy as a tremendous failure on historical, philosophical, and common-sense grounds. And along the way, the site's editor, Barry Sussman, and I grew to consider Odom a personal friend.

Odom’s core argument was remarkably simple – and oddly hard to refute: That the military strategies adopted by the Bush/Cheney administration were accomplishing almost precisely the opposite of what they intended – time and time again.

In his first essay on August 3, 2005 -- What’s wrong with cutting and running? – Odom offered this advice:

If I were a journalist, I would list all the arguments that you hear against pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq, the horrible things that people say would happen, and then ask: Aren’t they happening already? Would a pullout really make things worse? Maybe it would make things better.

He then listed the nine chief arguments against pulling out – among them, that the country would fall into chaos, that we would lose international credibility, that Iran would gain influence – and pointed out how those were precisely the byproducts of our continued occupation.

In his next essay, on November 11, 2005 -- Want stability in the Middle East? Get out of Iraq! – Odom argued the converse: That Bush says he wants to bring democracy and stability to the greater Middle East, but that the only way to achieve that goal is to get out of Iraq immediately. He wrote:

I believe that stabilizing the region from the Eastern Mediterranean to Afghanistan is very much an American interest, one we share with all our allies as well as with several other countries, especially, China, Russia, and India.

But the ill will created by our unilateral invasion and occupation of Iraq, he wrote, has shattered our ability to create a cooperative approach to stabilizing this region. Only a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq could win back the support of our allies and a few others for a joint approach to the region. He concluded:

Once the invasion began in March 2003, all of the ensuing unhappy results became inevitable. The invasion of Iraq may well turn out to be the greatest strategic disaster in American history. In any event, the longer we stay, the worse it will be. Until that is understood, we will make no progress with our allies or in devising a promising alternative strategy.

In his March 8, 2006, essay -- Iraq through the prism of Vietnam – Odom used his personal and historical perspective on Vietnam to point out the striking similarities with Iraq. With one big difference: The geopolitical stakes this time are even higher, he wrote.

Will Phase Three in Iraq end with helicopters flying out of the "green zone" in Baghdad? It all sounds so familiar.

The difference lies in the consequences. Vietnam did not have the devastating effects on U.S. power that Iraq is already having.

And Odom wrote that the Vietnam analogy also bolstered the argument that only after it pulls out of Iraq can the U.S. hope for international support to deal with anti-Western forces:

Once the U.S. position in Vietnam collapsed, Washington was free to reverse the negative trends it faced in NATO and U.S.-Soviet military balance, in the world economy, in its international image, and in other areas. Only by getting out of Iraq can the United States possibly gain sufficient international support to design a new strategy for limiting the burgeoning growth of anti-Western forces it has unleashed in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.

A few months later, Vice President Cheney asserted a new "domino" theory regarding Iraq, saying withdrawal from Iraq would first and foremost make the United States look weak -- which would then have cataclysmic domino-style effects across the globe, and would make the United States more vulnerable to attack.

In his July 17, 2006, essay -- A reverse domino theory may be playing out in the Middle East – Odom unsurprisingly argued that Cheney had it all wrong. In fact, Odom warned, it was more likely that a new Arab-Israeli war could break out precisely because our actions in Iraq have emboldened Iran and Syria. But domino theories in general, he wrote, are dangerous. "[T]he dire consequences of the domino theory that were so widely proclaimed by hawks at the time never came to pass," he reminded us, continuing:

We should have learned a number of things from the Vietnam War, but most of all that unintended consequences are often the most significant outcomes. Our well-intended policies in Vietnam soon rendered the United States incapable of accomplishing anything positive in the region. Massive use of American combat power justified all of the extremism that North Vietnam used in pursuing its course, and most important, it removed all doubt about who could claim the banner of "national liberation" in Vietnam. The Saigon government was soon seen as no more than America's lackey. Thus withdrawal from Vietnam actually improved America's strategic position for turning the tide against the Soviet Union, beginning during the Carter administration and accelerating during the Reagan administration.

In the succinct language of military strategy, strategic withdrawals often involve tactical defeats but open the way to counteroffensives and "strategic success." The domino theory, invoked to avoid "tactical defeats," can easily obscure the wisdom of a strategic withdrawal and instead pave the way to "strategic defeat."

In his October 9, 2006, essay -- Does our safety diminish as our laws increase? – Odom briefly turned his attention away from Iraq, and onto the effect the "war on terror" was having on his own country. "The unhappy truth," he wrote, was that "the Bush administration is fighting on the wrong side in this struggle, more threatening to our rights than to al Qaeda":

Because no act of terrorism has yet destroyed a liberal democracy but acts of parliament have closed a few, Americans should ask if the new U.S. policies, laws, and practices in reaction to the attacks of 9/11 are more threatening to their liberties than Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda.

Does the administration’s insistence on treatment of prisoners that violates the Geneva Convention, even after the Supreme Court ruled against its detentions at Guantanamo, produce better intelligence and make military operations more effective?

Does its insistence on surveillance of telecommunications of US citizens by standards that violate the FISA Court rules improve either our security or our counterterrorism operations more than it threatens our liberties?

And what about the administration’s feckless investigations and failed prosecutions of terrorist suspects, its clumsy and gross mishandling of student and other visa applications, its signs on highways asking citizens to "report suspicious activities"? Are these impingements threatening our liberties more than our enemies?

Do the ill-considered and bureaucratic monstrosities created by the law establishing the Department of Homeland Security and the Intelligence Reform Act please al Qaeda both by imposing large transaction costs on American taxpayers and restricting their liberties?

His conclusion:

It is high time that leaders in Congress, opinion makers, candidates for public office nationwide and the press unmask the so-called "Global War on Terrorism" for what it is: a slogan and a campaign that make al Qaeda and other such organizations far more effective than they would be if publicly ignored and quietly attacked by methods entirely within the limits of our constitutional rights.

In his December 11, 2006, essay -- Six brutal truths about Iraq – Odom attacked some of the mythologies that were – and are still -- interfering with an honest debate about how to proceed in the Middle East. Among his "truths":

Truth No. 1: No "deal" of any kind can be made among the warring parties in Iraq that will bring stability and order, even temporarily.

Truth No. 2: There was no way to have "done it right" in Iraq so that U.S. war aims could have been achieved.

On April 28, 2007, Odom was the unusual choice to deliver the weekly Democratic radio address. We titled it 'The Commander-in-Chief seems to have gone AWOL'. Odom introduced himself this way:

I am not now nor have I ever been a Democrat or a Republican. Thus, I do not speak for the Democratic Party. I speak for myself, as a non-partisan retired military officer who is a former Director of the National Security Agency….

In principle, I do not favor Congressional involvement in the execution of U.S. foreign and military policy. I have seen its perverse effects in many cases. The conflict in Iraq is different. Over the past couple of years, the President has let it proceed on automatic pilot, making no corrections in the face of accumulating evidence that his strategy is failing and cannot be rescued.

His conclusion:

To put this in a simple army metaphor, the Commander-in-Chief seems to have gone AWOL, that is "absent without leave." He neither acts nor talks as though he is in charge. Rather, he engages in tit-for-tat games….

The bill that Congress approved this week, with bipartisan support, setting schedules for withdrawal, provides the President an opportunity to begin this kind of strategic shift, one that defines regional stability as the measure of victory, not some impossible outcome.

I hope the President seizes this moment for a basic change in course and signs the bill the Congress has sent him. I will respect him greatly for such a rare act of courage, and so too, I suspect, will most Americans.

In his June 26, 2007, essay -- The path out of Iraq starts with Iran – Odom wrote that cooperation between Washington and Tehran was the single most important step that could be taken to rescue the U.S. from its predicament in Iraq.

In his July 5, 2007, essay -- 'Supporting the troops' means withdrawing them – Odom took issue with Bush’s repeated attack on critics of the war for a failure to "support the troops." Bush’s definition of supporting for the troops was "brutally misleading," Odom wrote. "Consider what his policies are doing to the troops." He concluded:

If the Democrats truly want to succeed in forcing President Bush to begin withdrawing from Iraq, the first step is to redefine "supporting the troops" as withdrawing them, citing the mass of accumulating evidence of the psychological as well as the physical damage that the president is forcing them to endure because he did not raise adequate forces. Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress could confirm this evidence and lay the blame for "not supporting the troops" where it really belongs – on the president. And they could rightly claim to the public that they are supporting the troops by cutting off the funds that he uses to keep U.S. forces in Iraq.

In his February 14, 2008, essay -- The war and the recession: a connection? – Odom wrote:

Withdrawing from Iraq will not turn the economy around, but the billions of dollars that would be saved could certainly defray the cost of an economic stimulus package, lessening the likelihood of ensuing inflation.

The final Odom piece we ran on NiemanWatchdog.org -- The surge is prolonging instability, not creating the conditions for success -- was actually the text of his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at an April 2 hearing. Five months later, it remains a piece I reread at least once a week. While the conventional wisdom in Washington is that the surge has worked, Odom argued persuasively that the surge is nothing more than a tactic to delay the inevitable -- and one that may well make things worse, rather than better, in the long run.

"Violence has been temporarily reduced but today there is credible evidence that the political situation is far more fragmented," he wrote, reserving particular concern for the Sunni gunmen the U.S. government pays to be our friends. "Remember, we do not own these people. We merely rent them." He continued:

[T]he decline in violence reflects a dispersion of power to dozens of local strong men who distrust the government and occasionally fight among themselves. Thus the basic military situation is far worse because of the proliferation of armed groups under local military chiefs who follow a proliferating number of political bosses.

This can hardly be called greater military stability, much less progress toward political consolidation, and to call it fragility that needs more time to become success is to ignore its implications…

What we are witnessing is more accurately described as the road to the Balkanization of Iraq, that is, political fragmentation. We are being asked by the president to believe that this shift of so much power and finance to so many local chieftains is the road to political centralization. He describes the process as building the state from the bottom up.

I challenge you to press the administration’s witnesses this week to explain this absurdity. Ask them to name a single historical case where power has been aggregated successfully from local strong men to a central government except through bloody violence leading to a single winner, most often a dictator. That is the history of feudal Europe’s transformation to the age of absolute monarchy. It is the story of the American colonization of the west and our Civil War. It took England 800 years to subdue clan rule on what is now the English-Scottish border. And it is the source of violence in Bosnia and Kosovo.

How can our leaders celebrate this diffusion of power as effective state building? More accurately described, it has placed the United States astride several civil wars. And it allows all sides to consolidate, rearm, and refill their financial coffers at the US expense.

Odom didn’t just write for us, of course. On February 11, 2007, in a major piece for The Washington Post’s Outlook section, entitled: Victory Is Not an Option: The Mission Can't Be Accomplished -- It's Time for a New Strategy, he wrote:

The new National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq starkly delineates the gulf that separates President Bush's illusions from the realities of the war. Victory, as the president sees it, requires a stable liberal democracy in Iraq that is pro-American. The NIE describes a war that has no chance of producing that result. In this critical respect, the NIE, the consensus judgment of all the U.S. intelligence agencies, is a declaration of defeat.

His final opinion piece for The Post – this one coauthored by his longtime friend and colleague Zbigniew Brzezinski – ran on May 27, 2008, just three days before Odom had a heart attack at his vacation home in Vermont.

The subject, one hopes, was not an omen of another debacle to come. In A Sensible Path on Iran, Odom and Brzezinski wrote:

Current U.S. policy toward the regime in Tehran will almost certainly result in an Iran with nuclear weapons…. The United States would have a better chance of success if the White House abandoned its threats of military action and its calls for regime change…

A successful approach to Iran has to accommodate its security interests and ours. Neither a U.S. air attack on Iranian nuclear facilities nor a less effective Israeli one could do more than merely set back Iran's nuclear program. In either case, the United States would be held accountable and would have to pay the price resulting from likely Iranian reactions. These would almost certainly involve destabilizing the Middle East, as well as Afghanistan, and serious efforts to disrupt the flow of oil, at the very least generating a massive increase in its already high cost. The turmoil in the Middle East resulting from a preemptive attack on Iran would hurt America and eventually Israel, too.

Gen. Bill Odom will be sorely missed.

General Principles
While other top brass played press agents for the administration’s war, William Odom told the truth about Iraq—though few listened. From The American Conservative.

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