Gen. William E. Odom
Former General Sees 'Staying the Course' In Iraq as Untenable
JOHN HARWOOD / Wall Street Journal 28apr04
Cost of the War in Iraq *
The time to worry is when Washington politicians on all sides agree. So when John Kerry echoes President Bush in arguing that the United States "can't cut and run" from Iraq, maybe it's time to listen to someone who says we must.
Maybe it's time, in other words, to listen to retired Gen. William E. Odom. It is delusional, asserts the Army veteran, college professor and longtime Washington hand, to believe that "staying the course" can achieve President Bush's goal of reordering the Middle East by building a friendly democracy in Iraq. For the sake of American security and economic power alike, he argues, the U.S. should remove its forces from that shattered country as rapidly as possible.
"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?"
His is not the voice of an isolationist, or a peacenik, or Republican-hater. He is talking from the conservative Hudson Institute, where he was hired years ago by Mitch Daniels, later Mr. Bush's budget director. His office displays photos of Ronald Reagan, under whom Mr. Odom directed the National Security Agency, and Jimmy Carter, on whose National Security Council staff he served.
Rather, his unsettling view reflects a broader reassessment of America's predicament as Iraq looks ever-uglier. It can be seen as well in U.S. Administrator L. Paul Bremer's tacit admission of error in disbanding the Iraqi Army and Mr. Bush's new reliance on United Nations help.
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.
Following the planned June 30 handover of nominal sovereignty, Iraqis may go to the polls and vote. But the result, Mr. Odom explains, will resemble theocracy more than liberal democracy. As televised images of Iraqis cheering attacks on U.S. troops suggest, it's not likely to be anything Americans would consider worth the war's cost in blood and treasure.
"Anybody that's pro-American cannot gain legitimacy," he says. "It will be a highly illiberal democracy, inspired by Islamic culture, extremely hostile to the West and probably quite willing ... to fund terrorist organizations." The ability of Islamic militants to use Iraq as a beachhead for attacks elsewhere may increase.
But can't U.S. troops there tamp down such hostile activity? Well, yes, he says -- at a cost of rising hostility to the U.S. throughout the region.
"It probably will radicalize Saudi Arabia, [and] it could easily radicalize Egypt," Mr. Odom says. Violence yesterday between security forces and terrorists in Syria hinted at what may come, heightening dangers for Israel and the U.S. Iran might agree not to stir trouble among fellow Shiites who are 60% of Iraq's population -- provided the U.S. eases its hostile stance toward Tehran's nuclear ambitions.
Yet the stakes, in Mr. Odom's view, are much bigger. The longer U.S. troops hang tough, he reasons, the more isolated America will become. That in turn will place increasing strain on international economic and security institutions that have undergirded the emergence of "America's Inadvertent Empire," as Mr. Odom's latest book calls it. "I don't know that the UN, the IMF, the World Bank, [or] NATO can survive this," he says.
His proposed solution sounds initially like Mr. Kerry's: a call for the U.N. and European allies to take charge of political and security arrangements. What's different -- even Bushlike -- is that Gen. Odom would accompany that request with a unilateral declaration that U.S. forces would leave even if no one else agrees to come in.
Such a move, he concludes, might even provoke an unexpected result a year after Mr. Bush brushed off opposition from France, Germany and many others to oust Saddam Hussein. "The Europeans might get scared [of chaos] and go in," Mr. Odom says. "There'd probably be a big effort to try to rescue" Mr. Bush. But U.S. troops would be gone within six months in any event.
It is a jarring prescription. But ask yourself, as bullets fly in Najaf and Fallujah, which sounds more credible: Mr. Odom's gloomy forecast, or Mr. Bush's prediction of success?