State of the Union: in Decline

January 24, 2007 Topic: Security Region: Persian GulfMiddle East Tags: DiplomacyTroop SurgeIraq War

State of the Union: in Decline

General William Odom, former director of the National Security Agency, gives his perspective of Bush’s State of the Union address and the president’s plan for Iraq and the Middle East.


General William Odom, former director of the National Security Agency, gives his perspective of Bush's State of the Union address and the president's plan for Iraq. In an interview with National Interest online editor, Ximena Ortiz, Odom corrects the president on his description of the ongoing ideological struggle in the Muslim world, and his strategy for the Middle East.

NIo: The president last night in his State of the Union address defended in dire terms his much-debated troop surge proposal for Iraq. But you have stated that a withdrawal of troops from Iraq would bolster the U.S.'s position by prompting Iraq's neighbors to clamor for American leadership in helping to stabilize the country. Given a surge in Iraq, do you think America could ultimately lose the opportunity to assume this leadership role you've described?


William Odom: Yes. We are not playing that leadership role today-in fact, we've gotten ourselves in a position where we cannot play that role. If we withdraw, I'd say the chances of prompting and catalyzing a situation of leadership opportunity are considerable. But if we are not able to do to [assume that leadership role given a U.S. withdrawal], then we will have to live with the results. But living with those results would be better than continuing on the road we're on, when we will be forced to take results that could become much worse.

NIo: If a surge comes to, in effect, simply delay an American withdrawal, do you think we would still be able to leverage that catalyzing opportunity further down the road?

WO: I would at least hope so. One can never predict in advance how these things are going to work out.

NIo: Will America suffer long-term consequences from the war in Iraq?

WO: I think we're to the point where there's no way to avoid long-term consequences. We have so damaged our relationships with Muslim countries and with many of our European allies that recovery of our position cannot come quickly.

And in the meanwhile, that limits our ability to play a stabilizing role, particularly in this area Brzezinski has called the Global Balkans-from Egypt to Afghanistan. And the danger is great that many of the great countries will get drawn into this [Global Balkans] vortex as well. Were we to withdraw and recover our declining influence, our capacity to put limits on how far that would go would increase. The longer we stay, the more difficult recovering that capacity would be.

NIo: And would, in your view, the recovery of American influence improve our capacity to influence events in the "Global Balkans" through diplomacy and leadership, rather than through force arms?

WO: I think Clausewitz-frequently quoted but never read-is worth remembering in this regard. He refused to talk about the military outside the political context. It has no meaning except as an element of politics. When we talk about fighting a war or using military positioning or anything like that, it has to be in the context of diplomacy and politics. Then we ask, in what way does military power contribute? Effective diplomacy needs military power behind it. The tradeoff between the two is misleading. We need a large military power to be effective in diplomacy-and our military power won't work if we're lecturing everyone in the world and being highly undiplomatic.

NIo: Bush said last night, "This war is more than a clash of arms. It is a decisive ideological struggle, and the security of our nation is in the balance." The president thereby placed America squarely into an ideological clash in the Middle East. Does America need to be there?

WO: I think his description of the clash mostly distorts the clash. There are several clashes in the Muslim world. There are clashes among Arab states. Many of these clashes are articulated in religious terms. The so-called ideological conflict is merely a justification.

Emphasizing this as a great ideological conflict is a short way to help our enemies win it. His contention that this is a two-sided clash makes us overlook the strategic significance of the war in Iraq. He upholds a mirage called "victory" as the way to win this ideological struggle.

But it's a many sided struggle, and one we can't control. We may be able to moderate it, if we gain the support of the major countries in the world, which now we don't have.

NIo: How would you describe U.S. priorities in the Middle East? How should we secure them-in particular, how do you see Iran's regional role evolving and what should be the parameters of U.S. policy towards Iraq?

WO: The U.S. priorities in the region, from the 1950s until this presidency, had been regional stability through balance of power strategy. Three loose camps-Israeli, Arab and Persian-have to balance each other. When we had good relations with Iran and some Arab states and Israel, then the military power required to balance the power was not as great. No camp was in danger of being overrun. The fall of the shah unhinged that strategy.

I was a planner in the Carter Administration when the president announced his Carter Doctrine, and you later saw that central command was instrumental to that, given our ability to project force there. It was part of an effort to compensate for having lost our footing in Iran. All the while, we thought that was a temporary arrangement. A more stable arrangement was to re-establish a relationship of some sort with Iran.

Even the Reagan Administration continued [balance of power strategy] by supporting Saddam against Iran. There were some real childish tactics involved there-with highly ineffective, comical gestures from Ollie North and others-but the strategy was used through the Bush and Clinton Administrations.

Now, we have two policies that don't contribute to stability. One is spreading democracy, and the other is threatening regime change when countries won't get rid of nuclear weapons. We are facing a situation where we're putting [in terms of priorities] regional stability way down below regime change, especially with Iran. I don't believe we can change the regime except by meeting it on the ground-which we don't have the force to do. This is a highly unrealistic goal, and the other, spreading democracy, terrifies every country out there that would like to cooperate otherwise.

If we focused on regional stability instead, you wouldn't have the great powers of the world drawn into this region as they were in the Balkans in 1914. This means that the quickest way in re-achieving that stability would be some kind of U.S.-Iranian opening. I have said several times that I am quite prepared, if Iran gets nuclear weapons, to give that a lower priority, in favor of establishing a cooperative relationship. That would put us in a better position to guarantee Israel's security and to keep the Arabs from being scared to death of Persian influence.

Getting there now is harder because of the invasion of Iraq, but that doesn't mean it's still not the most promising priority to pursue.

More National Interest online coverage of the State of the Union:

Ali Allawi on Iraq's State of DisUnion.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev on President Bush's untimely address.

Geoffrey Kemp on Bush's Critics from both sides of the aisle.

Steve Clemons on the absence of a credible plan.

Paul J. Saunders on Bush's chimerical energy solutions.

Ximena Ortiz on the president's unique reality.

Ian Bremmer and Willis Sparks on Bush's one last chance in Iraq.