Washington has its share of retired generals who go on TV and blather the administration line fed them, we have recently learned, at private Pentagon briefings. And then there was Bill Odom.
A retired three-star general who was once a senior officer on President Carter's national-security staff and later chief of the supersecret National Security Agency during the Reagan administration, Odom was one of the first Washington insiders to publicly predict disaster in Iraq. In February 2003, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, when most of the Washington military establishment and much of the mainstream media (including me) were in a hawkish mode, Odom had this to say in The Washington Post: "The issue is not whether the Iraqi people will greet U.S. soldiers as their liberators, but what will they do six months after that. I find it naive and disingenuous to claim that you can create democracy in Iraq any time soon. The administration has already assured us that the U.S. will not stay there for very long, and, if that is the case, then the goal of establishing a constitutional system in Iraq is a joke."
I had dinner with General Odom a couple of times. After one meal, Margaret Thatcher gave a speech. During the question and answer period that followed, General Odom stood up from our table and grilled her on her skepticism about German reunification in 1989, a decade before. (Odom was very pro-German.) Afterwards, the Baroness came over to our table and resumed the argument with Gen. Odom. They went at it hard for ten minutes, like a baseball umpire and manager arguing over a play at the plate. I sat there wide-eyed. Finally, Odom said something like, "My ancestors hid behind trees and shot your ancestors wearing those stupid redcoats during the Revolutionary War!" Mrs. Thatcher laughed, and they went off to the bar together and shot the breeze amiably for two hours.
Most people who are successful in Washington don't have that kind of character.
Also, a few recollections of a presentation I heard him give at this 1999 Hudson Institute event:
- He forcefully quantified America's overwhelming post-Cold War military dominance against any conceivable alliance of challengers, which is something I hadn't realized before. (Sure, I was pretty dumb back then, but how many people don't realize that today?)
- Odom's worldview was that there were only two places in the world that really mattered in terms of the industrial might to support a Really Big War -- Northwest Europe and Northeast Asia. And, sure, the Persian Gulf was kind of important, but the countries that could really cause trouble were just about the same ones as in 1914-1953: Germany, France, and Britain and Japan, South Korea, and China.
- Most radically, Odom believed that America's garrison troops in Britain and Germany, and in Japan and South Korea prevented major wars from breaking out. His logic was that with America garrisoning two of the three Great Powers in each of the two Major Regions, any theoretical war among the three powers in each region would logically have to involve at least one country with an American garrison, and, hence, was inconceivable. But if America pulled out of Germany and Britain, say, then war between one of them and France or between each other would eventually ensue. (And the same for Japan, South Korea, and/or China.) This sounds nuts, but it's impossible to disprove. (By the way, as of late 2007, we still had 44,000 troops in Europe, 17 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. I haven't been able to find more recent numbers -- the number of American troops in Europe is not a topic that comes up much in the news. Nobody seems very interested in the subject.)