Today at Arlington Cemetery, the United States will lay the body of Lt. Gen. William Odom to rest. Parting with a good friend and a great man is a heavy burden at the best of times, but our loss is made all the more palpable by the fact that his country needs him now more than ever.
As the 2008 presidential campaign comes to a head, I can’t say how much I wish General Odom were around to keep the candidates honest. John McCain stakes his claim to the presidency in large part on the belief that the Iraq surge has been a success. McCain equates the tactical victory of reducing the number of American casualties in Iraq to a strategic victory for the United States in the Middle East. And in essence, Barack Obama lets him get away with it. This past Friday, Obama conceded to Bill O’Reilly that the surge has been a military success. Obama probably has to give some ground on this point to win the election, but does change really begin with deluding ourselves?
Somehow, we’re still not having a real conversation. If Bill were here, we might be.
William Eldridge Odom died May 30, 2008 after a long and distinguished career, in which he served as an Army officer in Vietnam, military attache to national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski under President Carter, and director of the National Security Agency under President Reagan. In one of his last public appearances, in April of this year, General Odom gave a blistering critique of American policy in Iraq, including the much-touted surge, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“Now let us consider the implications of the proliferating deals with the Sunni strongmen…” he testified. “We are being asked by the President to believe that this shift of so much power and finance to so many local chieftains is the road to political centralization. He describes the process as building the state from the bottom up.”
“I challenge you to press the administration’s witnesses this week to explain this absurdity,” Odom continued. “Ask them to name a single historical case where power has been aggregated successfully from local strongmen to a central government except through bloody violence leading to a single winner, most often a dictator. That is the history of feudal Europe’s transformation to the age of absolute monarchy…It took England 800 years to subdue clan rule on what is now the English-Scottish border.”
“How can our leaders celebrate this diffusion of power as effective state building?” Odom asked. “More accurately described, it has placed the United States astride several civil wars. And it allows all sides to consolidate, rearm, and refill their financial coffers at the U.S.’ expense.”
The truth hurts, but where are we without it?
The first time I met Bill, I was a sophomore in college, and my parents had invited him over for dinner. He asked me what I studied, and when I answered “political science,” he smiled and asked “what’s that about?” Already off balance, I stammered some answer that might have pleased a political theorist. He told me I’d described political philosophy. “For an ‘A,’ you should have said ‘who gets what, when and how.’”
Bill was terse, but he always cut to the heart of things, and his Tennessee twang masked an unparalleled intellect. He was an exceptional student of comparative politics, and having served as a senior practitioner of them in government, he understood the game from historical and practical perspectives, which he weaved together with ease. Whip-smart, patriotic, and unflappable, Odom was insuperable in argument, and he loved a knock-down, drag-out battle of wits.
“Anyone who knew him knew that this is a man who speaks his mind,” Odom’s long-time friend and colleague Brzezinski reminisced on NPR. “He was very good at making it clear where he stands, and he didn’t give a damn whether people cared, agreed or not.”
As Brzezinski noticed when the two first met at Columbia University, where Odom earned his doctorate, Bill had a talent for cutting things at initially wild but ultimately insightful angles. Of the Vietnam War, in which he had served with distinction, Odom remarked, “the containment of China was a Soviet foreign policy objective. I never understood why we were deploying half a million troops to do it.”
Odom saw a similar pattern at play in Iraq, where he was among the first to point out that Iran would be the primary beneficiary of the war. In an interview on the fourth anniversary of the invasion, he told Charlie Rose that the U.S. couldn’t stop the Iranians from building nuclear weapons, and that it should pursue an eventual diplomatic opening with them. Rose asked whether Russia would be willing to live with a nuclear Iran. “The Russians…enjoy immensely seeing us have problems with Iran,” Odom replied. “We have forced the most unnatural alliance in the world. I know of no period, from Peter the Great’s time to the present, where there have been really stable, good relations between Iran and Moscow. They depend largely today on U.S. hostility to Iran.”
As a voice of unfailing sobriety and uncommon brilliance, Bill understood what conservatives have lately forgotten and liberals have a hard time accepting: that we can’t solve every problem, and we should concentrate our efforts where they’ll accomplish most. He never succumbed to the temptations of venality, and he maintained the courage of his convictions even when it cost him advancement in Washington.
It’s hard to think of a figure who lived so fully in the fires of politics without being consumed by them. As Brzezinski memorializes him, Bill “rose because he stood for things. A lot of people rise because they stand for nothing. He was one of those very lucky people who stood for something and he rose nonetheless.”
At times, Odom parted dramatically with public opinion. Though he thought the U.S. should have made it clearer to Saddam Hussein what would happen if Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, he opposed the Gulf War. He paid a price for that, but he didn’t care. He had a country to answer to.
Bill delighted in intellectual swordplay; it was how he sized you up. When he was a trustee at Middlebury College, it was said that school administrators would walk the other way if they saw him on campus, for fear of being drawn into an argument and drilled into the ground.
It was a particular pleasure watching Bill clean the floor with people, or having him clean the floor with you. He never pulled his punches to please his audiences.
But though he was a quick wit and a quick study, he never dismissed things out of hand. While many liberal elites scoffed at the Bush administration’s strategy of promoting democracy abroad only when it began running aground, he saw there was something deeper in it to disprove, because he recognized that it was rooted in illusions shared by both parties.
So Odom called attention to the distinction between the ends of American foreign policy and our humanitarian ideals, which sometimes carry us away. And he pointed out with characteristic alacrity that anyone could hold free elections, but what was really at issue was the establishment of constitutional regimes—which no country could simply create out of thin air.
“Of the more than 40 democracies created since World War II,” Odom reminded readers in a Washington Post piece in February 2007, “fewer than 10 can be considered truly “constitutional” — meaning that their domestic order is protected by a broadly accepted rule of law, and has survived for at least a generation.”
“Remember back in the Carter years, that list of states we were told were ‘developing democracies?’” I remember him asking some former colleagues at an event at the Hudson Institute. “Mexico? Pakistan? Well, they’re still developing, aren’t they?”
Sometimes his conclusions could make your jaw drop. I once asked him about the worst-case terrorism scenario: What happens if terrorists detonate a nuclear weapon in an American city? “Destroy a city? Yeah, they might do that,” he replied. “But that wouldn’t be the end of the United States, and that might be the price you pay to keep your liberty.”
As a servant of elected leaders, Odom’s rough edges were never smoothed over by the demands of elected office itself, but that made him indispensable: He was a voice of unwashed reason.
Even the folksy phrases and metaphors he dropped in passing were edifying. We’d talk about a thorny issue like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and he’d say something like “maybe this is one of those cans we just kick down the road.” Most politicians go their whole lives without ever recognizing their own limitations and entertaining thoughts like that. Yet there they were, volumes of wisdom in the transitions between his paragraphs.
Odom had learned the limits of power firsthand in combat, and later, serving alongside Brzezinski through the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian hostage crisis — two setbacks that eventually worked out better for the U.S. than anyone could have predicted at the time. He was comfortable with the existence of regimes that had different governments, cultural values, and priorities, and he understood how the U.S. could preserve the peace without seeking to remake the world in its image.
In the age of the “Straight Talk Express” and “Yes, We Can,” how many political figures actually talk straight, or ever stop to wonder if maybe we can’t? How many consider ideas on the merits, and expose them to the harsh light of day?
Bill was a remarkable man and a consummate public servant. He was that rarest creature who embodied the best qualities of an individual and a political being, a life of action and of the mind.
I miss him dearly. His death leaves a void in the lives of those who knew him, and a dangerous chasm in American politics.
-David Donadio is a 2008 Phillips Foundation journalism fellow, a writer and editor at the Carnegie Endowment, and managing editor of Doublethink Online.