General Condemnation

George Kenney

Retired Lieu­tenant Gen­er­al William Odom was the direc­tor of the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Agency between 1985 and 1988. Cur­rent­ly a senior fel­low at the Hud­son Insti­tute and a pro­fes­sor at Yale Uni­ver­si­ty, Odom has been an out­spo­ken crit­ic of the Bush administration’s for­eign policy. 

You’ve described Iraq as the great­est strate­gic mis­take that the Unit­ed States has ever made. Could you elab­o­rate on that?

A short­hand way is to reflect on what hap­pened to the Haps­burg Empire. There is an anal­o­gy here with bin Laden and 911 and his tak­ing refuge in Afghanistan. I think invad­ing Afghanistan made some sense because we were going after the cul­prit. But when we went into Iraq, we were invad­ing a coun­try that didn’t have any­thing to do with 911. This has set in motion some of the same kind of con­se­quences that the Haps­burgs set in motion by their ulti­ma­tum to Ser­bia, which start­ed World War I and led to their own destruction.

Rather than los­ing the Unit­ed States as an empire, what we’re doing is los­ing Europe. In oth­er words, we’re essen­tial­ly destroy­ing NATO. And NATO has pro­vid­ed a supra-nation­al-polit­i­cal-mil­i­tary sub­sti­tute for gov­ern­ment in Europe, which has allowed the longest peri­od of peace and pros­per­i­ty in the his­to­ry of Europe. Whether that can con­tin­ue with­out NATO or with­out a strong U.S.-European con­nec­tion through for­mal insti­tu­tions is most doubtful.

So we would essen­tial­ly be destroy­ing this inter­na­tion­al system.

Absolute­ly, but what we are destroy­ing is not a ter­ri­to­r­i­al empire, it is an ide­o­log­i­cal empire. The ideology’s not democ­ra­cy; it’s lib­er­al­ism with a cap­i­tal L. Lib­er­al coun­tries are coun­tries that have con­sti­tu­tions. They brought the state under con­trol. They lim­it the pow­er of the state, they make it the hon­est ref­er­ee. Those coun­tries have always become demo­c­ra­t­ic in their deci­sion-mak­ing pro­ce­dures, but coun­tries that become demo­c­ra­t­ic with­out first hav­ing a sol­id con­sti­tu­tion­al agree­ment almost nev­er turn out to be liberal.

And unlike pre­vi­ous empires, coun­tries have gen­er­al­ly fought to get in this one, not to get out.

Remem­ber that in the fall of 2001, the U.S. had over 90 coun­tries par­tic­i­pat­ing in five sub-coali­tions in the anti-ter­ror­ism coali­tion. We nev­er have had so much inter­na­tion­al sup­port in our his­to­ry. And we had NATO, with­out any urg­ing, invok­ing Arti­cle 5 of the treaty say­ing that bin Laden’s attack on the Unit­ed States was an attack on them. 

U.S. inter­na­tion­al sup­port began to erode only when the pres­i­dent announced the Axis of Evil” in Jan­u­ary 2002. And I remem­ber being con­fused as to what the Euro­peans were talk­ing about until I heard a cou­ple of senior diplo­mats – deputy chiefs of mis­sion of major NATO coun­tries – say­ing, We signed up to fight al-Qae­da, and when we heard the president’s speech, he was ask­ing us to declare war on Iraq, Iran, North Korea.”

They didn’t sign up for that, and they weren’t even asked. And then the pres­i­dent march­es on, act­ing as if Euro­peans were fools because they didn’t sign up for the war, as if they were out of place to ques­tion whether they should even be consulted. 

A lot of peo­ple have talked about the rea­sons why we made the mis­take of going into Viet­nam. It’s hard­er to get a han­dle on why we made the mis­take in Iraq. How do we find out what the rea­sons were?

Only thing we could do is ask Mr. Bush. It seems to me that it’s pret­ty hard to imag­ine us going into Iraq with­out the strong lob­by­ing efforts from AIPAC [Amer­i­can Israeli Pub­lic Affairs Com­mit­tee] and the neo­cons, who think they know what’s good for Israel more than Israel knows. The invis­i­ble ele­phant in the room on this issue is the Israeli fac­tor. Peo­ple don’t like to talk about it. Now that we’re in there, we’re get­ting to real­ize that the war is cre­at­ing far more dan­gers for Israeli secu­ri­ty than it’s pro­vid­ed improve­ments for Israeli security. 

I think you’re going to see a Shi­ite Islam­ic régime in at least a large part of Iraq and it’s going to coop­er­ate with Iran, and Iran with Hezbol­lah in Lebanon, and that will cre­ate all kinds of trou­ble for Israel.

It’s a lot of hubris, a lot of intel­lec­tu­al arro­gance, on the part of neo­cons who think they know what’s bet­ter for every­body else. 

So put that all aside. The most impor­tant thing to remem­ber is to go back and use the Viet­nam exam­ple. Our fail­ure after 1964, after the Gulf of Tonkin, when we decid­ed to increase the troop lev­els, was not to ask the ques­tion, again and again, what was our strate­gic pur­pose in Viet­nam and did it make any sense.

I remem­ber that James Gra­ham, who was the CIA’s Asia guy, also argued against the war until Kissinger final­ly forced him out. So, the agency wasn’t on board for that war either.

To blame the intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty is a big mis­take. Intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ties are not free. They’re hired agents for a par­tic­u­lar admin­is­tra­tion, which picks their lead­ers. Take this anal­o­gy from the cor­po­rate world: Have you ever heard of a board of direc­tors fir­ing a vice pres­i­dent for mar­ket­ing? No, cor­po­rate boards fire the CEO because it’s the CEO’s job to hire the vice pres­i­dent for mar­ket­ing. So if the Con­gress is so upset with the CIA’s per­for­mance on the war, they should impeach the president.

Is there much chance in your view that the Con­gress is going to weigh in on Iraq or on the pos­si­bil­i­ty of fur­ther con­fronta­tions with Iran any­time soon?

The Iraq issue will come back because it’s just going to get worse. The admin­is­tra­tion may find some cov­er to cut and run. I would not be sur­prised to see in a few months, when the Shi­ites are pret­ty well ensconced in the gov­ern­ment, they may just say it’s time for you fel­las to leave.

Which would be great.

It would be great in the sense of not stay­ing longer, but then we would be fac­ing the strate­gic ram­i­fi­ca­tions for Iraq and the region, which we are going to have to face soon­er or lat­er any­ways. And that is that we have actu­al­ly put in the driver’s seat a coun­try whom we have defined arbi­trar­i­ly as one of our worst ene­mies, Iran.

There is a knee-jerk ten­den­cy to say, Well, if we left, it would be a mess. There­fore, we can’t leave.” That requires blind­ing one­self to the fact – the real­i­ty – that our pres­ence is cre­at­ing the mess, that we don’t keep a mess from hap­pen­ing by stay­ing, and that we don’t have the alter­na­tive of not cre­at­ing a mess. When we crossed the bor­der of Iraq with the inva­sion, all these unto­ward out­comes were inex­orably going to happen.

From the begin­ning I was unam­bigu­ous­ly against this war. I said that the U.S. inva­sion of Iraq is not in our inter­est, it is in the inter­est of al-Qae­da and the inter­est of Iran.

Have peo­ple come back to you to say, Gen­er­al Odom, you were right?”

It’s not any­thing par­tic­u­lar­ly bril­liant on my part. We have all been made to put up with this pre­pos­ter­ous illu­sion. It’s like some­body telling you, There’s no cloud in the sky today.” And when you look up and can’t see the sun, you say, You know, I don’t see the sun.” It doesn’t take a lot of insight to point out that there’s no sun­shine up there.

It seems like there are a lot of dis­hon­est peo­ple mak­ing pol­i­cy so we’re left to fig­ure out how to deal with that. Peo­ple see these state­ments com­ing out of Wash­ing­ton and think, Well, my gosh, how do I make sense of that?”

The sad thing to me in that regard is that the Democ­rats gave the pub­lic vir­tu­al­ly no real choice in the last elec­tion. So I’m not ter­ri­bly sur­prised at the way it came out, but I don’t think it real­ly reflects where the pub­lic stands on the war in Iraq. I’ve giv­en up on the Democ­rats. I think the best hope right now, for the next elec­tion, is to find a Repub­li­can who will say that the war is a mis­take strate­gi­cal­ly and then get out. 

There was an arti­cle in Der Spiegel say­ing Amer­i­can emis­saries had been try­ing to con­vince the Ger­mans and Turks and so forth to pre­pare for some kind of assault on Iran. Do you see any real­is­tic chance that we are now going to start con­fronting Iran?

I would have, in the past, said it’s almost too ridicu­lous to take seri­ous­ly. But giv­en this administration’s record, I’m reluc­tant to rule it out.

You can look at this and make a very strong case that by nam­ing the Axis of Evil” and invad­ing Iraq, we have actu­al­ly strength­ened North Korea and strength­ened Iran. They’ll both end up with nuclear weapons, where­as they might not have if we hadn’t done this. If you had a good rea­son to invade Iraq, and I don’t think we did, you shouldn’t have lumped Iraq togeth­er with Iran as ene­mies until after you had achieved what you want­ed to achieve in Iraq. Sure­ly you don’t want two ene­mies out there. Why not have Iraq’s oth­er ene­my, Iran, on your side?

George Ken­ney, a for­mer career U.S. for­eign ser­vice offi­cer, resigned in 1991 over U.S. pol­i­cy toward the Yugoslav con­flict. He is now a writer in Wash­ing­ton, and host and pro­duc­er of the pod­cast Elec­tric Pol­i­tics.
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