General: 'Victory Not an Option' in Iraq

Lt. Gen. William Odom explains his op-ed that appeared in The Washington Post on Feb. 11 where he laid out his reasons why the United State will not be able to achieve victory in Iraq.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Earlier this week two Iraq war veterans joined us to share their differing views on the president's war strategy in Iraq. Today, another voice on that subject.

Retired Lieutenant General William Odom is an outspoken critic of the war. He called the invasion of Iraq, quote, the greatest strategic disaster in United States history. General Odom served as the head of Army Intelligence and Director of the National Security Agency in the Reagan Administration. Two weeks ago he wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post entitled "Victory is Not An Option."

If you have questions for General Odom about the way forward in Iraq, about what might work and what won't, give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us: talk@npr.org.

And General Odom is with us here in Studio 3A. Nice to talk to you again.

Lieutenant General WILLIAM ODOM (U.S. Army, Retired): Thank you.

CONAN: And as you know - explain briefly why Iraq - victory is not an option.

Lt. Gen. ODOM: Well, that's not really my title.

CONAN: OK. That's The Washington Post's title.

Lt. Gen. ODOM: But victory - I would put it - the way victory's defined to the president is not an option; creating a liberal democracy in Iraq. What I propose is to realize that's a dead end and you can't get there - not in any timeframe that is useful for the United States. But if you redefine your war aims in the region, then I think some kind of victory is possible.

And towards the end of the piece I spell that out. And I think making the aim regional stability, not victory in Iraq, is a much more sensible thing to do. That's been our traditional aim out there, and invading Iraq has undercut that U.S. interest.

CONAN: One might argue regional stability was what we had before - while Saddam Hussein was still in power.

Lt. Gen. ODOM: Yes, exactly. And we'd be better off today if he were still in power, than having overthrown him - because we've unleashed this array of forces that we're not going to put back in a box and under any kind of order, any time soon.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. One of the arguments that we continually hear from the administration, one of the arguments we continually heard in the House debate about the so-called surge in Iraq last week - was, in fact, one of the things you addressed in your piece. That at this point, however the war started it's the war that it is now, we are where we are - as a lot of people say - and for American forces to leave now would invite a disaster. A much worse civil war than exists now.

Lt. Gen. ODOM: We're going to pay that price sooner or later. Had we left earlier the aftermath might have been less. If we leave a year later, it will be even greater. We don't have an option to keep that from happening. The only options we have is to decide how much we're going to pay before we face the reality that we've unleashed forces that are beyond our control as a country alone.

If we followed what I suggested we do and withdraw, then I think we could get cooperation from a lot of countries who are not with us today - Europeans - and also countries contiguous to Iraq, who have a strong objective interest in not seeing it produce such a terrible aftermath. With help, we can limit that aftermath. But we will only make it worse if we don't withdraw tactically in order to win strategically.

CONAN: All right. Explain a little bit about withdraw tactically to win strategically.

Lt. Gen. ODOM: As long as we're in Iraq, we're diplomatically, and militarily, and strategically paralyzed. The French enjoy our pain. A lot of other European countries enjoy our pain. The Iranians are absolutely ecstatic about our pain. And why should they - and al-Qaida has turned this into the greatest training ground they've ever had. far better than anything they had in Afghanistan.

So even our friends who don't with us well, and certainly our enemies, are just absolutely ecstatic with what we're doing by staying in. Getting out takes away that privilege. It repolarizes the situation and structures it entirely differently. Suddenly, they can no longer gloat. They're going to have live with the realities that we leave.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

And I think at that time they will be very anxious to cooperate with us. They won't say so publicly. Certainly they're not going to say so beforehand. But when we start getting out, I think that will free up this paralysis and give an astute American leadership a chance to recover and keep this from being even worse than it is if we stay on the present course, and maybe, even, to achieve a kind of regional stability.

CONAN: And the objections, of course, that you'll hear - you mentioned al-Qaida. If - again, al-Qaida may not have been in Iraq before the U.S. invaded, but they're certainly there now. A chaotic state would give them the opportunity, perhaps, to establish training grounds as they had in Afghanistan to launch attacks on not only the United States, but countries in the region.

Lt. Gen. ODOM: They would be worse off if we left. They cannot operate in Kurdistan now. The Shiites don't like them and don't cooperate with them. The Sunnis cooperate with them because they happen to be a convenient ally who will kill Sunnis and try to stir up a civil war.

CONAN: Kill Shias (unintelligible).

Lt. Gen. ODOM: I mean, kill Shias and stir up a civil war. The training they're getting here that they've not gotten before is actual combat, and we've seen the recruitment go up dramatically. After 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan, recruitment for al-Qaida dropped precipitously for about 18 months.

It's not - late into the summer of 2003, after we're beginning to bog down, that it begins to rise. It rises rapidly because people pour into Iraq. They have combat experience there as terrorists. They leave and can create - do missions in other places.

So we've provided this mill that just produces stronger and stronger cadres. Were we to get out, al-Qaida would be slowly squeezed out. They might be able to stay a while with the Sunnis, but as the Sunnis - as one side or another wins the civil war, you can bet the al-Qaida will be killed.

CONAN: And how - there was a lot of people who said, look. If we pulled out, we'd have to go back in to police this civil war. It would be a humanitarian disaster. Hundreds of thousands could die.

Lt. Gen. ODOM: If that happens - which I don't think it's going to happen, it might - I don't think we have any choice but to accept those losses. We caused this. We cannot avoid it. I've tried to use a metaphor to get it across.

Suppose you have just fired a pistol accidentally or some other way into a person. They're bleeding to death. The rescue squad cannot arrive in time to save them. And you say, oh, my God. I can't afford to have committed murder, but you just did. It just hasn't worked out that way yet. That's where we are. And the proposal to send in more troops and continue on this path is like shooting two or three more rounds into this body before it dies in order to save it.

And if you get that through your head, you begin to realize why this is not in the U.S. interests, and it's a way to a worse defeat, not a victory.

CONAN: Our guest is retired Lieutenant General William Odom. If you'd like to join the conversation: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. And let's turn to Neil. Neil's calling us from East Hampton in Long Island.

NEIL (Caller): Hi, how are you? Thanks for having me on the program.

CONAN: Sure.

NEIL: There's a question I have for the general: What makes him think - or does he think - that we have in any way the right to go into another country and do what we've done? And I'll take my answer on the air.

CONAN: Off the air, I assume, is what he means. But general?

Lt. Gen. ODOM: If I understand your question, you ask what right do we have to go into a country? Well, under international law, I don't think we do unless they've attacked us. And I don't think Iraq attacked us.

CONAN: It should be pointed out you opposed the war from the beginning.

Lt. Gen. ODOM: Yes. I opposed this war long before it started. In 2002, I was making arguments that to do this would be the height of folly. Now, I've been a little disappointed - not entirely - concerning all of my colleagues in party politics and political science. A lot of scholars knew that the evidence we have on how liberal constitutional democracies come about suggest the prospects in Iraq were virtually nil - certainly not in the short run.

And we should have had more people standing up and pointing this out in advance. I tried to, but - I tried to publish things on this, and I was essentially blocked out by some of the main media press on it.

But I'm in print having said - specifically in the Washington Post - that this will please our enemies in Iran enormously if we invade. It does not matter how they greet us when we come in. It matters how they treat us after we've been there for six months, and that if we think we're going to create a constitutional order in a short amount of time, this must be a joke.

CONAN: Let's get Roger on the line. Roger's calling us from San Francisco.

ROGER (Caller): Yes, thank you for this opportunity.

CONAN: Sure.

ROGER: I totally agree with the general. You simply can't win a war if your guerilla forces or your insurgency, as we call them, has the support of a significant number of the population.

Before this war started, Neal - I don't know if you remember this. I made a kind of departure on the show. I pleaded with the president not to go to war. It was a mistake. And it is so tragic for this nation to have lost so much of our wealth and so many of our people in this unnecessary and futile war. And I thank God that we have generals and military people like General Odom that understand this situation and are trying to do something about it.

CONAN: Well, I'm sure that general…

Lt. Gen. ODOM: Well I certainly appreciate that. You can imagine, all my mail is not favorable, and I won't bother you with the unfavorable…

CONAN: That's all right, neither is mine. Roger, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

ROGER: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can turn to - this is line 3, and this is Hannafi(ph) - Hannafi calling us from Phoenix, Arizona.

HANNAFI (Caller): Yes sir, hi. General, good to be with you this afternoon, and I have a quick question for you. It's been brought up to everybody's attention since the attacks of September 11th the lack of Arabic linguists in the intelligence community. And there was an article today in the Wall Street Journal talking about how the Army's more focused on the Midwest and the Southeast to recruit officers, not even ethnically diverse areas that have Arab linguists or people who are Arab-American.

What can you guys do to, like, help change policy to bring in people who speak the language, understand the culture, to help get the information that regions - you know, directly versus getting it from our so-called allies, who may have different perspectives of the outcome of a war. And I'll take my answer offline.

CONAN: And let me just add that as former director of the NSA, this is that you're quite familiar…

Lt. Gen. ODOM: Yes, it's something that's close to my heart. I'm not au currant right now, so I can't speak with complete confidence about what the situation is, but it's my impression that they made a very strong effort to find these people. They've removed a lot of restrictions on people they would accept. A lot of people who are natives - native Arab speakers in the region have been used.

There's just a dearth of these people in the United States, and many of them have been used. I'll give you an example of what I would call a rather spectacular use of this has been the recruiting of 2 or 3,000 Arab-Americans who live up in the Michigan area to come down to Fort Polk, Louisiana and to populate make-believe Arab villages. And battalions - before they're sent to Iraq - have to go down there and deal with these people, and they behave like sheikhs and local merchants and these sorts of things, and they give our troops a hard time, and some act as interpreters.

So they have the experience of being confused through interpretation and having the interpreter betray you by passing on classified information. So we're doing some things, but there's just no way to solve this problem completely in a year or two or three.

CONAN: Retired Lieutenant General William Odom. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get Chuck on the line, Chuck calling from San Francisco.

CHUCK (Caller): Thank you very much. I hate to say it, but the only solution that I see that is not a horrible one is a political solution within Iraq, and combined with a little aggressive regional diplomacy, but I guess the general doesn't think that's possible - at least the former.

The thing that I found - what the general said that I don't understand is he said, I believe, whichever side wins the civil war will eliminate al-Qaida. It seems that if the Shia win the civil war, the Sunnis will probably not just kind of take it lying down, and they will still have a common cause with al-Qaida, even if it's at a lower level of insurgency. And if the Sunnis win the civil war, they will have done it with the help of al-Qaida, and they're likely to be grateful for that help.

CONAN: General?

Lt. Gen. ODOM: Well, one can never be certain about these kinds of things. But the stories I hear from the people coming from the Sunni regions is that the relationship between al-Qaida and the Sunnis is mixed, to put it gently. Most of the Sunni population don't like al-Qaida at all, because they end up killing too many Arabs.

So if the Shiites truly win, then they will repress this kind of insurgency activity the way Saddam repressed insurgency activity by the Shiites in 1991. But these things are sort of beyond our control now.

The reason I'm kind of playing it down is that I think - I actually think they won't be as bad as they are, but I'm trying to emphasize that even if they are as bad as the exaggerated pictures that we're encouraged to accept as reality, we don't have a reasonable, rational choice but to take that - pay that price now.

It's a sunk cost. You're in a stock, it's on its way on down, and it's not going to come back. And buying more stock does not make sense. It's a simple concept of sunk costs.

CONAN: Even if it's as bad as the alarmists fear it might be?

Lt. Gen. ODOM: Well, let me just say…

CONAN: Another 9/11?

Lt. Gen. ODOM: I don't think another 9/11's going to come out of this. Some other kinds of thing will come out. I don't think this has anything to do with al-Qaida capabilities in the U.S., and connecting this al-Qaida business with Iraq, the only connection that disturbs me is that as long as we're in there, we're providing a dramatically improved training ground for them. And to get out, they can't kill Americans there, and the training will be somewhat different. And it may not be very favorable for them.

CONAN: Chuck, thanks very much.

CHUCK: Thank you. I agree with a lot of what you say, General. Thank you very much.

Lt. Gen. ODOM: Appreciate it.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get one more caller in. This is Nate - Nate with us from Kansas City.

NATE (Caller): Hi. My question was just about the specific point about - you use a lot of metaphors to say that, basically, if we try a surge, it's going to make matters worse in the end. But I thought the point was that what is going to happen in the end is sort of out of our control. And so if a - you know, a surge or no surge, isn't it going to be a disaster, and so what's the harm in just trying a surge just in case you might be wrong about this?

CONAN: And General Petraeus seems to be a very competent man.

Lt. Gen. ODOM: Well, he has to do what policy requires of him. If I were a serving officer and had that task, I'd probably be moving on with the surge. We do have a choice to pull out and have fewer Americans killed now. The real question the president needs to be asking himself and the military chain of command is that how many American lives do you want to expend to test this proposition that's been tested consistently, repeatedly since 2003?

You know, I didn't say anything against the war for a full year. And I began to realize that all my anticipations have been right on target, and so I began speaking out. I don't see why we'd spend another year.

CONAN: General Odom, thanks very much for being with us.

Lt. Gen. ODOM: Thank you.

CONAN: Retired Lieutenant General William Odom, who served as head of Army Intelligence and director of the National Security Agency, now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, also teaches at Yale.

Ira Flatow's here tomorrow with Science Friday. We'll see you Monday. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.

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