Retired General William Odom, who served as a national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, spoke last Thursday to the Committee for the Republic in Washington, DC. He described the Iraq War as a historic blunder that the United States should end.
Most of General Odom's presentation dealt with his new book The Unintentional Empire published by Yale University Press. This academic book focuses on the role of the United States as an empire. General Odom sees mainly good coming out of the U.S. empire and evidenced this by highlighting how countries want to be part of the empire, share in the wealth we create and the liberal democracy we have developed. He describes the U.S. empire as an ideological empire, not a territorial one. And, unlike other empires in history, it is a moneymaking not a money-losing empire. He sees other institutions, like the WTO, IMF and World Bank as part of the system and notes that they were created by the U.S. Finally, he sees the role of the U.S. military as projecting our power and influence as well as keeping peace among our allies. “The military umbrella,” according to Odom, “is critical to sustaining the empire.”
An example of the positive role the U.S. empire plays is the re-unification of Germany. This was opposed by most of Europe but quiet behind-the-scenes discussions by the United States resulted in the re-unification being accepted. This was good for Europe and the world, but likely would not have occurred without U.S. influence.
According to Odom, “The biggest threat to the U.S. empire is incompetent U.S. leadership.” This brought the discussion to Iraq, which General Odom has described as a major foreign policy blunder.
He was asked -- if President Bush sought your advice on Iraq what would you say in a letter to him. Odom responded that he would tell the President that “he is losing in Iraq” and that he “has made the most strategic foreign policy disaster in U.S. history.”
To get out he suggests the President send Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Europe ostensibly to talk about Kyoto. In reality, the purpose of the visit would be to say the President wants to meet with you in the Azores to discuss Iraq. Once a meeting is organized the President should tell other foreign leaders “I screwed up and am pulling out.” He should make the point that the U.S. pulling out could make things worse for the region, Russia and the Far East because terrorists in Iraq will be freed up to go to other countries. The country least likely to be effected by this would be the United States. The President should seek the involvement of these countries in order to minimize the destabilization that might occur. Then he would instruct the Secretary of Defense to develop the logistics for getting out of Iraq.
In order to bring stability to the region the best approach, according to Odom is to “develop an opening between the United States and Iran.” The conflict with Iran needs to be turned on its head. The President should send a private delegation to Iran to explain our common interests. We should be willing to make concessions on the nuclear bomb -- get the nuclear bomb off the table and begin to work with Iran to stabilize the region.
General Odom was asked by an Iraq veteran who had just returned how he knew the war was lost when we have only been there for three years. Odom described the problems in Iraq as beyond our ability to control. The multiple ethnic groups in Iraq, the divisions in Arab culture and their lack of history with a limited state makes “Iraq one of the hardest places on earth to put in place a liberal democracy.” Odom sees spreading democracy, especially liberal democracy, as very difficult.
When asked how we can bring the president to heel? Odom responded with a question “how do you impeach the president?” He went on to express concern about the weakening constitutional balance in the United States.
When it came to Congress, Odom talked about meeting with Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) where he congratulated Jones for “taking the lead because then it won't go to the radical left and we won't be spitting on our soldiers.” Regarding Rep. Jack Murtha (D-PA), Odom said he “absolutely agrees with Murtha.”
Odom came to oppose the Vietnam War, not from the left but from the right and he is doing so on Iraq as well. He saw Vietnam as uniting our enemies and failing to contain China. He sees the same thing occurring in Iraq. The unintended consequences of strengthening Iran, undermining U.S. influence in the Middle East and the world and strengthening Osama bin Laden, make this a war counterproductive to U.S. interests. He pointed out that like Vietnam the Iraq War was justified by false intelligence comparing the Gulf of Tonkin with the Weapons of Mass Destruction claims. Odom saw three stages in Vietnam: 1961-65 getting into the war; 1965-68 understanding we are not fighting it right, changing approach to a pacification policy; 1968 to end -- Vietnamization and phony diplomacy in Paris. He sees us at the end of Phase II in Iraq and beginning Phase III this year. We are seeing the Iraqization of the war and he concludes we will see Congress starting to break with the President more and more; and the final conclusion will be the U.S. leaving the “Green Zone” much like the U.S. left the embassy in Vietnam.
Odom noted that the United States is “running out of Army” and that people underestimate how difficult the Iraq War is on the Army. Indeed, he said: “if we took a referendum among U.S. troops 80 percent would favor leaving. We might be winning tactically, but we are losing strategically.” He predicted a dramatic draw down by next Christmas with some type of political cover invoked to accomplish it.
Regarding U.S. influence, Odom sees U.S. influence in the region diminishing. Further, according to Odom “it is important that the U.S. does not become the catalyst for upheavals, we should stop them from spreading not be their cause.” The way to regain our influence would be “resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict.”
As to the idea that the Iraq War is a war for oil, Odom described oil as a “red herring. Oil is a commodity. Our enemies will sell us oil.” However, Odom did see a need to break U.S. addiction to oil. He recommended a $2 tax on oil to build up a research and development fund for alternative energies. He realized the political leadership may not be able to accomplish this feat.
On the larger issue of American Empire, and the lessons from Iraq, Odom urges that “the United States should be an empire that acts like a Republic. We should use our power like a teacher on a playground -- not like one of the kids.” It is possible that the U.S. empire is history, but he hopes not.
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