I was heartened to hear Ret. Lieutenant Gen. William Odom get to the nub of things on PBS’s The News Hour last night in the wake of the Petraeus-Crocker hearings, reminding viewers of what he’s been saying for months: that the US-Iran collision so desired by the warhawks on Capitol Hill is about as unreflective, and dangerous as it gets.
And again, Odom sites the Nixon Administration policies in Vietnam post-1969, for which he has a bit of experience (he helped pursue counterinsurgency operations there during the period’s infamous and ill-fated “Vietnamization” policy):
“Another point, as you assess the overall strategy, is that we don’t have the forces to continue any significant large presence there indefinitely. We don’t have the Army to do anything about Iran if we wanted to, which would be a big mistake, the kind that [National Security Advisor Henry] Kissinger and [President Richard] Nixon made by widening the war in Vietnam in 1970…”
Odom is referring to Nixon’s 1970 decision to expand the US bombing of Cambodia, and the failed Laos excursion, both of which left millions of Cambodians and Laotians dead or fleeing their countries, and in the case of Cambodia, indirectly helping the Khmer Rouge into full authority, subjugating the remaining Cambodian people mercilessly and killing an estimated 1 to 3 million more over the next few years.
The relentless carpet bombing further fractured public opinion over the war in the US, which added to the already degraded morale of the troops in Vietnam, and shook the resolve of policy makers in congress and in the administration. Bombing the enemy into submission, historians surmise, did not help win the peace.
Odom has a unique view in that, because of his experience in Vietnam, he doubts the efficacy of classic counterinsurgency methods, period. He told me so when I interviewed him last year at the start of the surge. I was writing about the Mahdi Army ceasefire, and what it meant. Funny that I had also quoted surge architect Fred Kagan for my article, who sparred with Odom on the same News Hour last night.
A year ago, Odom seemed to have the right tack:
“Sure, those guys are going to get out of the line of fire,” he said of the Mahdi. “They’ll wait and see what happens and then design a way to come back and attack the U.S. position with tactics more favorable to them.”
Kagan, still on the first leg of what would be a 12-month “defend the surge” media blitz, was ever the optimist:
“We have not been allowing (the al-Mahdi Army) to lay low. We have been picking off the leaders in their senior organization. We have established a joint security station” in Sadr City, he said. “That means we are operating on their home turf and tripping their networks.”
Kagan said he believes al-Sadr is losing face with his people by not being there, creating opportunities for Shiite leaders who are more amenable to working with the central government and the United States.
One of those leaders, Sadr City Mayor Raheem Darraji, was almost killed in an assassination attempt on March 15. He was involved in the negotiations with Iraqi and U.S. military that cleared the way for American troops to come into the city.
Kagan continues to be the ubiquitous man of the hour about Washington, while Odom toils away as one of the legion of foreign policy “untouchables” marginalized during the last six years of war. Perhaps things are changing. As Scott pointed out, he gave a lapel-throttling testimony to the senate recently, and one hopes he will be called upon, under the right circumstances, in a new administration, for his invaluable expertise.
Nixon’s 1968 campaign promise for “an honorable end to the war” was kept – he began drawing down US troops soon after in favor of Vietnamization. But when the final Americans left as Saigon fell in 1975, “honor” was the last thing anyone in the United States was feeling. Yes, the administration and Republican war supporters blamed the hippies, the media and Democratic congress for losing the will for war — as the same Republicans certainly do today. But as Odom points out, again and again – and some of us are listening – it’s the policy, stupid, and widening ours in Iraq to Iran would be as dumb as it gets.