NSA Director William Odom Dissects Iraq Blunders
NSA Director Odom Dissects Iraq Blunders
by Michael Hammerschlag
April 16 -Providence RI Full Audio (realplayer)
Former National Security Agency Director Lt. General William Odom dissected the strategic folly of the Iraq Invasion and Bush administration policies in a major policy speech at Brown University last week for the Watson Institute- America’s Strategic Paralysis .
"The Iraq War may turn out to be the greatest strategic disaster in American history. In a mere 18 months we went from unprecedented levels of support after 9-11..to being one of the most hated countries…Turkey used to be one of strongest pro-US regimes, now we’re so unpopular, there’s a movie playing there- Metal Storm, about a war between US and Turkey. In addition to producing faulty intel and ties to Al Qaida, Bush made preposterous claim that toppling Saddam would open the way for liberal democracy in a very short time. Misunderstanding the character of American power, he dismissed the allies as a nuisance and failed to get the UN Security Council’s sanction. We must reinforce international law, not reject and ridicule it.”
Odom, now a Yale professor and Hudson Institute senior fellow, was director of the sprawling NSA (which monitors all communications) from 1985-88 under Reagan, and previously was Zbigniew Brzezinski’s assistant under Carter. His latest 2004 book is America’s Inadvertent Empire.
Even if the invasion had gone well, Odom says it wouldn’t have mattered: “The invasion wasn’t in our interests, it was in Iran’s interest, Al Qaida’s interest. Seeing America invade must have made Iranian leaders ecstatic. Iran’s hostility to Saddam was hard to exaggerate.. Iraq is now open to Al Qaida, which it never was before- it’s easier for terrorists to kill Americans there than in the US. Neither our leaders or the mainstream media recognize the perversity of key US policies now begetting outcomes they were designed to prevent… 3 years later the US is bogged down in Iraq, pretending a Constitution has been put in place, while the civil war rages, Iran meddles, and Al Qaida swells its ranks with new recruits. We have lost our capacity to lead and are in a state of crisis- diplomatic and military.”
Odom believes in an immediate phased withdrawal. “There isn’t anything we can do by staying there longer that will make this come out better. Every day we stay in, it gets worse and the price gets higher.”
He decried the “sophomoric and silly” titled war on terrorism. “Terrorism cannot be defeated because it’s not an enemy, it’s a tactic. A war against Al Qaida is sensible and supportable, but a war against a tactic is ludicrous and hurtful… a propaganda ploy to swindle others into supporting one’s own terrorism ... and encourages prejudices against Muslims everywhere. What if we said, ‘Catholic Christian IRA hitmen’? ”
“The hypocrisy is deeper than this. By any measure the US has long used terrorism. In ‘78-79 the Senate was trying to pass a law against international terrorism- in every version they produced, the lawyers said the US would be in violation.”
The fixation on spreading democracy was wrongheaded. “Holding elections is easy, creating stable constitutional orders is difficult. Only 8-9 of 50 new democracies created since the 40’s have a constitutional system. Voting only ratifies the constitutional deal that has been agreed to by elites- people or groups with enough power- that is guns and money, to violate the rules with impunity… Voting does not cause a breakthrough… One group will win out and take them off the path to a liberal breakthrough .. Spreading illiberal democracy without Constitutionalism is a very bad idea, if we care about civil liberties. We are getting that lesson again in Hamas.”
Odom called for a “great reduction in US oil consumption” and pilloried our “energy policy of no energy policy. As long as large sums of money roll into the coffers of a few Middle East states, a lot of it will leak into the hands of radical political activists. A “$2-3 a gallon tax could fund massive R+D programs for alternative fuels and generate a strong demand for greater fuel efficiency … Getting serious about nuclear power could also lessen our oil dependency.”
“No government that believes radical terrorist groups in Middle East are serious threat to us would do any less on energy policy.”
Withdrawing our troops from Europe and NE Asia was also dangerous, he said. “Large US land forces in Europe and East Asia have been important in keeping the peace among our allies… allowing businessmen to lower transaction costs… and account for unparalleled economic growth.” President Clinton reduced the Army by about half, but Bush’s deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan “will leave the US unprepared to meet any other significant military contingency… leaving only one brigade in Germany and one in Italy, and eroding troop levels in Korea and Japan.” Rumsfeld’s plans threaten to “hollow out NATO, ensuring the failure of military transformations of its new members.”
The adult crowd was wowed by the extraordinary density of strategic wisdom and expertise in the hour lecture and Q+A. Asked about the current NSA spying controversy, Odom said, “Well he just invited you to invite me to commit a felony. 18 US Code798 says ‘to disclose anything about how signal intelligence is done is a felony.’ ” “Oh come on, Bill,” joshed a professor to a round of laughter. “After 9-11 Congress was willing to do anything. It’s inconceivable to me that they would not have cooperated to find a legal way to do this (warrantless spying).”
Most radically, Odom sees the US obsession with non-proliferation of nukes as damaging. “It dictated the invasion of Iraq, and now inspires calls for invading Iran. At the same time we ignore Israeli nukes, we embrace Pakistan and India, in spite of their nukes. This policy is not only perverse, but downright absurd. We will have more proliferation and we better get used to it.
A reporter’s question about the benefits of an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities provoked a fervent response. “I think we could have a rapprochement with Iran. You do that and you put it off for another 20 years. You want to be at war with all the Muslims forever?” Regarding a nuclear terrorist attack on a US city, “It’s gonna be bad. But they won’t kill us with one nuke. We can track a nuke back to the country where it came from (at least the fissile material, if there is a recorded elemental signature). These people know that! If we deterred the Soviet Union, think we can’t deter these pipsqueaks? We’re talking ourselves into hysteria. Now we have the incentives so structured that we cause proliferation.. If we bomb, good God man, that tells everyone in the world, get a nuke. We won’t bomb you if you have a nuke.”
He agreed that a catastrophic 10 year civil war like Lebanon was “a pretty realistic view”. “Iran has told the Shiites, ‘don’t fight, do what the Americans tell you- the electoral process will put you in power, meanwhile we’re arming you and building up your militias. The Sunni insurgency is trying to provoke the civil war while we’re still there so they’re not left to face these militias after we’ve leave.” The Kurds “will get as much autonomy as they can and back out of the system. An independent Kurdistan is likely, but the two factions of Peshmerga might fight. Al Qaida can’t operate up there, so that will be a stable little island.” But Kurdish independence “won’t please Iran, Syria, or Turkey- a NATO ally.”
The victory of the numerically dominant Shiites (4 to 1) isn’t assured. “Odds look better for the Shiites right now. But the organizational capacity of the Baathists remain sufficient to be a serious contender. How much confidence and capability are these Iranian trained Shiite militias developing? They could fragment among themselves. The clerics may or may not be good organizers of the troops and police. The Baathist Party was modeled after the Soviet system- their ability to implement and impose and compel is pretty impressive. Syria is a pretty stable regime; Iraq was a stable regime.” The civil war could spread the Shiite-Sunni conflict among Arabs in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, maybe Bahrain.
Iraq “will have some sort of dictatorship- either a highly disciplined party or military organization. We just don’t have fragmented societies with such deep sectarian and ethnic divisions that are also nice stable liberal systems. Look at Canada with just two ethnic groups, that teeters occasionally. Where is Saddam when you need him?”
On escaping Iraq: “Once it became obvious I was getting out, I would go to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Syria, Turkey, and Iran and say, ‘I invite you to this meeting to handle stabilization issues as I get out.’ I would have a secret chamber with Iran and say, ‘You hate the Taliban, we hate the Taliban; you want to sell oil, we need to buy oil; your alliance with Russia is very unnatural; if you want to discuss the West Bank- I’ll talk about it but won’t give anything away.’
‘Oh, and by the way, I’m taking the nuclear issue off the table. You want nukes, have them. You live in a bad neighborhood.’ There’s no single diplomatic move that would so revolutionize our position up there.”
In North Korea Odom “anticipates a collapse. That regime is very much like the Soviet regime, they do not transform, they degenerate. When the leadership loses capacity or will to blood or terrorize the population, it collapses.” He sees a sudden reunification of the Koreas, followed by tensions with ancient overseer Japan. “Those 2 countries don’t like each other.”
The Koreans say, ‘The Americans are crazy.’- just look at the public opinion polls and attitude of the South Korean government. Kim Jong Il knows just what to do to get the US to spin up in the air 3 times and bribe him on the way down. I see us on autopilot on a self-destructive path. China’s slowly replacing us. They’re becoming the peacemaker- they’re the ones who use their hegemony to settle things constructively.”
Odom sees ominous parallels with Vietnam. “How did we get in the (Vietnam) war? Phony intelligence over the Tonkin Gulf affair. Once we got in, it was not legitimate to go back and talk about strategic purpose, we were only allowed to talk about how we were doing- the tactics. We would not go back and ask whether this was in our interests. I see the pattern so clearly here. We have Iraqization- if they stand up, we’ll stand down. Training troops is not the problem. Political consolidation, not military consolidation, is the issue. Unless troops know to whom they should be loyal, they’ll fight some days, not others (and maybe against the wrong side).”
“If they (military power) get ahead of political consolidation, we know what happens then- a military coup.”
“This was imminently foreseeable by my poly sci colleagues who did not stand up and speak out loudly enough at the absurdity of spreading democracy when we’re really talking about Constitutionalism. Creating Constitutions- we don’t know how to do that! (at least not for 220 years) We are essentially paralyzed and can’t do much in the world cause we are bogged down in Iraq.”
“The declinists wake us up, so that we avoid decline; but the endists urge us to celebrate as we drift towards disaster. Those who urged us to invade Iraq are endists; I’m a declinist…. but only to revive my strategic optimism.”
Michael Hammerschlag's commentary and
articles (HAMMERNEWS.com) have appeared in Seattle
Times, Providence. Journal, Columbia Journalism Review,
Hawaii Advertiser, Capital Times, MediaChannel; and Moscow
News, Tribune, Times, and Guardian. He spent 2 years in
Russia from 1991-94, while the Empire collapsed and multiple
wars raged in the Islamic southern republics.