Former NSA Director: War Weariness Growing

I asked retired Gen. William E. Odom if he agreed with me that the Bush administration would be well-advised to release all the Abu Ghraib photos immediately, even the most disgusting ones. PR gurus routinely advise corporation and other organizations facing a brewing scandal to make a fetish of openness and make everything public preemptively. There will be a surge of embarrassment and pain that way, but it will be over more quickly than if the bad stuff leaks out over a period of weeks or months. The Bush administration would have the best chance of getting this thing behind it, I would argue, if it went for openness and making everything public – which would be out of character, of course – and moved beyond.

“I’m not sure I want to help the administration move on,” Gen. Odom said. “I’d rather impeach them.”

Gen. Odom is one of a growing number of military people publicly questioning the war in Iraq. He told me he was opposed to the war from the beginning, but waited until he thought he might have an impact to talk with the Wall Street Journal‘s John Harwood, who used him as the basis for his April 25 capital Journal column. “We have failed,” Gen. Odom told Harwood. “The issue is how high a price we’re going to pay … Less, by getting out sooner, or more, by getting out later?” Later he did a lengthy interview for “Nightline.”

Gen. Odom, former head of the National Security Agency during much of the Reagan administration, is hardly a pacifist or isolationist. He works now out of the Hudson Institute, a generally conservative think-tank. He has a strong sense of what is in the United States’ interest, and he doesn’t think the war in Iraq fit the bill.


Gen. Odom told me that our intervention in Iraq mainly serves the interests of bin Laden and other radical “Islamist” jihadists, as well as the Iranian regime. It reinforces the idea that the United States has declared war on Muslim states in general – note that Bush has now applied economic sanctions on Syria, further reinforcing the idea – and offers Americans as handy targets for those who want to kill or injure minions of the Great Satan.

If he were serving at the National Security Agency today, he told me, or on the National Security Council (as he was for a while) and he was asked for a plan of action for Iraq, it would go something like this. Send the Secretary of State, quietly at first, to the permanent members of the UN Security Council, and tell them we now know we made a terrible mistake. Ask them to formulate a resolution to have the UN take over the Iraqi transition. Don’t quibble over the wording of the resolution, just live with whatever they come up with.

If the UN Security Council didn’t come up with a resolution by June 30 – and Gen. Odom doesn’t think at this point that there’s much of a chance that it would – he would simply declare that Iraqi sovereignty is complete and unlimited as of June 30, and start pulling U.S. troops out – in a systematic rather than hurried manner, so it might take a few months. Then he would leave Iraq to the Iraqis.

It might well be chaotic for a while and it almost certainly wouldn’t be democratic. But it wouldn’t constitute a severe danger to its neighbors, and it certainly wouldn’t pose any serious threat to the United States.


The most abiding foolishness of the Bush administration, Gen. Odom, who teaches comparative politics at Georgetown and Yale and is especially interested in comparative politics, was imagining that we could plant a constitutional democracy there. It’s a place that “doesn’t have a sprig of a constitutional tradition,” he told me. To imagine one would growing a year or two or even five was simply the stuff of fantasy. Growing toward constitutionalism is a matter of decades, even centuries.

It took France pretty much the entire 19th century to establish a reasonably stable constitutional republic, he reminded me. The nature of the United States wasn’t determined until the Civil War, some 75 years after the constitution, and the process of deciding was soaked in blood.. Of the 50 or so titular democracies established since World War II, he estimates that only nine or 10 are constitutional democracies. And being constitutional – having a government in which the elites have decided to define and limit government’s power – is much more important than being a democracy.

Anybody can hold an election – even Iran has done it – but that won’t necessarily lead to a civil society or a form of governance that actually acts in the interests of the public, broadly conceived.


Gen. Odom, in response to a comment from me, denies that he is an especially good guy. He says he just knows how to do numbers – something those who currently call themselves Republicans seem to have forgotten how to do. The first Bush got other countries to subsidize the Gulf War. This one has American taxpayers paying the whole freight – including subsidizing the armed forces of the “coalition of the willing” – to the tune of at least $200 billion so far and who knows how much as the stubborn Bushies insist on blundering on without even thinking about changing course in response to realities on the ground.

Gen. Odom doesn’t see Sen. Kerry as offering an especially viable choice, at least on the basic issue of the war in Iraq. He might do things differently if elected to office, but now he is talking about “staying the course” and putting even more resources into the projects than the Bushies have done so far. It’s hard to imagine him running a simple ad like simply airing Dick Cheney’s speech back in 1991 explaining quite cogently why it would have been foolish to go to Baghdad.


Naturally, Gen. Odom has a book, America’s Inadvertent Empire, published by Yale University Press, and he urges me to read it. It explains, he tells me, how constitutions come about when the elites – those who have enough money and/or guns to run things – decide to set up rules about who rules, rules to make new rules, and some declaration about what the rights of the people are vis-a-vis the government. This happens when ad hoc government gets too bloody or too expensive. So far it has happened only rarely.

I had talked to Gen. Odom before, about Chechnya and other issues that had come up over the years, and had always found him refreshingly frank and delightful to match wits with. I will get the book and I suggest you might also.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).