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Odom: Bush Should Admit Iraq Is a 'Mess' And Make Plans for a U.S. Troop Pullout by Next Year

Interviewee: William E. Odom
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Visiting Fellow
May 6, 2004


William E. Odom, the head of the National Security Agency during the Reagan administration, says that President Bush should “eat a little humble pie,” admit the invasion of Iraq was a mistake, and seek U.N. forces to take over for U.S. troops. Odom, who opposed the war before it began, argues that Iraq will never become a liberal democracy. He also warns that “we’ve also nearly broken the U.S. Army by over-extension and over-commitment.”

A retired three-star general who is now a senior fellow and the director of national securities studies at the Hudson Institute, Odom says that President Bush, “no matter if he’s re-elected or not, will regret it” if he doesn’t withdraw troops quickly. He also says he does not believe Democrat John Kerry can win the presidential election if he does not call for an early pullout.

Odom was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on May 6, 2004.

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You’ve said the United States should withdraw from Iraq as soon as possible. Why?

It was not in our interest to enter Iraq in the first place. It was, however, in the interest of Osama bin Laden for us to destroy a secular Arab leader; it was very much in the interest of the Iranians because they wanted revenge against Saddam Hussein for Iraq’s invasion in 1980.

Our presence in Iraq risks turning it into a country that could become the base for terrorist operations and organizations like al Qaeda. Of the three war aims that the president set out—destruction of weapons of mass destruction, overthrowing Saddam’s regime, and creating a liberal democracy there—the first has supposedly been accomplished, although it seems to have been accomplished before we invaded; the second, as I just pointed out, was not in our interest, it’s more in our opponents’ interest; and the third I don’t think is possible.

Our creating a liberal democracy there is not going to happen any time soon. We’re more likely to have an illiberal democracy with theocratic rulers, very much as in Iran. And any Iraqi [leader] who has much legitimacy with the population cannot afford to be pro-Western or pro-United States. Therefore, once U.S. forces leave, it is almost inevitable that an anti-Western, anti-U.S. regime will arise. I don’t see that as an outcome that makes sense for the United States. In fact, it struck me when we invaded last year that if we did it without European and East Asian support, we were risking losing our alliance in Europe in exchange for Iraq, and that is a very undesirable exchange.

Why did you wait until very recently to make this argument?

I held these views before the invasion. I was quoted in The Washington Post in February 2003 on my point of view. But during the first three, four, or five months after the intervention, the mood of the country was such that you really couldn’t debate this, so I decided to raise these issues again this spring because I think events are beginning to show that these judgments may be well-founded.

Is it physically possible for the United States, with more than 130,000 troops in Iraq, to just pull out?

When I say pull out as soon as possible, I say this to galvanize the discussion about whether we ought to decide to do it. The tactics of the withdrawal are quite another thing. First, I would go to the United Nations Security Council, eat a little humble pie, and point out to the Europeans that what happens in Iraq is as important to them as it is to us, maybe more so, and that we made a mess of it and we would like to have the United Nations endorse some sort of United Nations force there, a stability force. And while we will contribute to it for a time, we’re beginning to bring our forces down, and clearly our 134,000 troops are not enough. So we hope the United Nations and the Security Council will be able to generate forces to back up ours and actually supplement them now.

I would use the 30 June deadline [for turning sovereignty over to Iraq] to try to start that process, if [the members of the Security Council] agree. Now, there are reasons they may not agree. Of course, if I were advising the president right now, I would tell him to be quite candid, in [communications via] confidential diplomatic channels, that the United States is headed out and that his timeline for getting U.S. troops out of there will be somewhere toward the end of this calendar year, maybe into early next calendar year. Not necessarily setting a specific date. But I would make it unambiguously clear that we are going to withdraw, and if Iraq falls into civil war and if all these unhappy things occur, we’re just going to have to accept them.

Is it possible, in an election year, for either side to say, “Let’s get out?” Both John Kerry and President Bush have talked about staying the course.

I realize that you can make an argument from a political strategist’s point of view that neither candidate can advocate pulling out on my timetable. I think President Bush, no matter if he’s re-elected or not, will regret it if he doesn’t do this. He’s looking at his larger historical legacy. It would make a lot more sense to start turning this around than to stay in longer [and pay the] price. In the case of Kerry, thus far he has done what one would call the prudent political thing in an election year. I think he should be more imaginative. He needs to say something more or less along the lines of what I’m saying, and explain to the American people that we made a big mistake, and if we were a middle-size power it would be devastating for us, but we are such an enormous power that credibility is not much of an issue for us and that over the long run we will establish full credibility by being willing to reverse a strategic error. Kerry should just step up to this thing and face it head on. If I had to bet right now, I would say that hedging his position, as Kerry has done, will make it unlikely for him to win the election.

Did the Pentagon go into this war with its eyes closed? The top Pentagon people seemed to be most avid advocates for it.

I don’t know what goes on in the mind of [Deputy Secretary of Defense] Paul Wolfowitz, [former chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Review Board] Richard Perle, [the vice president’s chief of staff] Lewis Libby, [Vice President Richard] Cheney, [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld. But, because I am a student of comparative politics and because I participated in nation building in Vietnam, I know that you don’t do this easily. And I also know that liberal institutions don’t just take root rapidly in non-Western cultures. They did in the case of Japan and, possibly, Taiwan. [Japan is] a special case, and goes back to the [1868] Meiji Restoration. Many people don’t know the history of that and don’t know that it is very special; it’s not a good model for the Middle East.

I don’t understand how [U.S. decision-makers] believed a liberal democracy could arise from Iraq. There are no clear property rights in Iraq. The whole notion of land property rights in the Arab world is different from that in Europe. Until that’s sorted out, creating the political infrastructure, the civil society, is out of the question. How many multi-national or multi-ethnic or multi-religious liberal democracies do we have? Belgium has teetered on the brink of break-up over the Walloons and the Flemish. Canada has trouble with Quebecois. As for Britain’s four tribes, one tribe—the Irish—doesn’t want to be in it at all; the Scots have gone into devolution as of late; and even the Welsh now have an internal parliament. You and I know what a multi-national state like the Soviet Union experienced with the centrifugal tensions there. Switzerland looks like a great exception. So the idea that you could put Kurds, Shiite Arabs, and Sunni Arabs in a nice, liberal, federal system in Iraq in a short amount of time, six months or a year, boggles the mind.

What about the aftermath? If the United States does essentially what you advise, would this not be seen by the terrorist groups as a tremendous victory?

There’s no question about that, and I don’t think that’s avoidable. And that’s why I said to people before we went in that the person most pleased by this is Osama bin Laden. We’ve given him a heck of a boost. I don’t see how, by staying in, you keep that from being the case. We’re in a situation that economists call “a sunk cost.” You don’t save [the situation] y putting more money in. We’re going to have to live with that. The question is, what price do we pay to live with it? How do we eventually turn it around? We’ve also nearly broken the U.S. Army by over-extension and over-commitment, which means there’s less of it available for Afghanistan and even for al Qaeda in other parts of the world.

One can never predict the future precisely, but unless there were to be some radical transformation there, which looks highly unlikely, things will be worse in a year and the price of getting out will be higher.

There are reports of prisoner abuses in the Iraqi jails run by U.S. forces. Is that kind of harsh treatment of prisoners old hat to you, or are these new incidents on a different scale?

It’s old hat in the sense that in many wars the abuse of prisoners have taken place. But I’ve always believed—and was taught—that such actions hurt the morale of your own forces and have a very negative effect on your own operations. It is a very bad old hat, very deleterious to our operations out there.

The second point I would make is that this seems to be on a scale that I find hard to imagine within the U.S. Amy, and I have thought, since [reports of abuses] broke out, about the statements of the president and in particular of the secretary of defense [Donald Rumsfeld] and others. While people out there on the spot certainly have to be held accountable for what they’ve done personally, the chain of command responsibility for this strikes me as just as important and should be dealt with.

Should the secretary of defense be asked to resign?

I’ll leave that to members of the Congress, who have the powers to impeach.

You mentioned the chain of command. How high up the chain should responsibility go?

I’d rather not go on the record on that issue.