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A hero of the war

COMMENTARY | February 29, 2008

Greg Mitchell, whose new book chronicles the press’s failings before and after the invasion of Iraq, gives credit to one of the rare public figures brave enough to speak out against the war early and often: Gen. William E. Odom.

By Greg Mitchell

One of the “heroes” of my new book on Iraq and the media, partly because of his writings here on NiemanWatchdog.org, is retired Gen. William E. Odom.   The book, So Wrong for So Long – How the Press, the Pundits – and the President Failed on Iraq (Union Square Press), examines press coverage from the run-up to war to the debate over the “surge” last autumn.  A recurring theme -- as nearly 60 months passed --  was the failure of editorial writers and TV commentators to come out against the war, or at least call for the beginning of a phased and slow pullout.

Odom was nearly unique in calling for such a withdrawal early and often (USA Today founder Al Neuharth was among the others) on op-ed pages, on TV and here at Nieman Watchdog.  Looking back at my E&P columns he crops up repeatedly.  Here are three excerpts in chronological order.

May 7, 2004

In a remarkable episode of ABC's ‘Nightline’ last night, retired Army Lt. General William Odom, director of the National Security Agency during the Reagan administration, called for a phased U.S. pullout from Iraq over the next six to nine months. And yet no major newspaper has explored this idea.

Nov. 13, 2005

Besides Nick Kristof, another prominent figure weighed in this weekend on the war. General William Odom (ret.), former head of the National Security Agency under President Reagan, wrote an article for the NiemanWatchdog site, earlier this year, in which he argued that the war is serving the interests of Osama bin Laden, the Iranians, and extremists in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. According to Odom, all that we fear could go wrong if we "cut and run" is actually made more likely by staying in Iraq.

In his latest piece, which he calls a “postscript,” Odom (now a senior fellow with the Hudson Institute and a professor at Yale University) calls Iraq “the worst place to fight a battle for regional stability. Whose interests were best served by the U.S. invasion of Iraq in the first place? It turns out that Iran and al-Qaeda benefited the most, and that continues to be true every day U.S. forces remain there. A serious review of our regional interests is required. Until that is accomplished and new and compelling aims for managing the region are clarified, continuing the campaign in Iraq makes no sense.”

But Odom is not for total disengagement. He wants the U.S. to remain a force, but recognizes that we will gain no help from key allies until our troops are on the way out. Therefore, “it becomes clear that U.S. withdrawal from Iraq is the precondition to winning the support of our allies and a few others for a joint approach to the region. Until that has been completed, they will not join such a coalition. And until that has happened, even we in the United States cannot think clearly about what constitutes our interests there, much less gain agreement about common interests for a coalition.”

He adds: “Putting it bluntly, those who insist on staying in Iraq longer make the consequences of withdrawal more terrible and make it harder to find an alternative strategy for achieving regional stability….To hang on to an untenable position is the height of irresponsibility. Beware of anyone, including the president, who insists that this is ‘responsible’ or ‘the patriotic’ thing to do.”

March 9, 2006

Let me cite a source with more credible hawkish credentials. No, not Vietnam vet Rep. John Murtha, but Lt. Gen. William E. Odom, U.S. Army (Ret.), director of the National Security Agency from 1985 to 1988 under President Reagan, now teaching at Yale University.

In an article posted at Nieman Watchdog on Wednesday, he argues: “The Vietnam War experience can’t tell us anything about the war in Iraq – or so it is said. If you believe that, try looking through this lens, and you may change your mind.

“The Vietnam War had three phases. The War in Iraq has already completed an analogous first phase, is approaching the end of the second phase, and shows signs of entering the third.”

I can’t possibly do justice to this long piece in these few words, as Odom goes through the three phases in the two wars (you can find it all at www.niemanwatchdog.org). But here’s his summary of phase 2 in Vietnam. Sound familiar?

“Phase Two in Vietnam was marked by a refusal to reconsider the war’s ‘strategic’ rationale. Rather, debate focused only on ‘tactical’ issues as the war went sour.

“By1965 things had begun going badly for U.S. military operations. By the end of March 1968, public opinion was turning against the war and Johnson chose not to run for re-election. His own party in Congress was breaking with him, and the pro-war New York Times reversed itself that summer.

“During this phase, no major leader or opinion maker in the United States dared revisit the key strategic judgment: did the U.S. war aim of containing China make sense? Instead, debate focused on how the war was being fought: on search-and-destroy operations, on body counts, and pacification efforts.

“This obsession with tactical issues made it easier to ignore the strategic error. As time passed, costs went up, casualties increased, and public support fell. We could not afford to ‘cut and run,’ it was argued. ‘The Viet Cong would carry out an awful blood-letting.’ Supporters of the war expected no honest answer when they asked ‘How can we get out?’ Eventually Senator Aiken of Vermont gave them one: ‘In boats.’”

But Odom’s article ends on this hopeful note, as he observes that “even in its differences, Vietnam can be instructive about Iraq. 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.”

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