“Six Brutal Truths about Iraq,” By Gen. Odom

The following article by General Odom is the best I have seen on Iraq. The notion that the US could have created a functioning republic out of Iraq was a pipe-dream. Any attempt to resurrect it will extend and exacerbate the violence. Also read this excellent article by Hala Jaber, "Secret American talks with insurgents break down," to get an understanding of what price the US would have had to pay to placate the Sunni insurgents. In essence they wanted the US to join them in the war against the Shiites, something the US could not do. The Shiites want it the other way. There is no deal to be made, as Odem asserts. Syria and Iran are both insisting that only when the US is well on its way out will they play a constructive role. In the mean time, they are happy to see America struggle. Its arrogance is their opportunity. They are snapping up realestate in the "new" Middle East.

Six brutal truths about Iraq
COMMENTARY | December 11, 2006, The Hudson Institute

General William Odom, one of the earliest advocates of an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, attacks some of the mythologies that are interfering with an honest debate about how to proceed in the Middle East and says the media have failed to recognize dramatic changes in the region.

By William E. Odom

Mythologies about the war in Iraq are endangering our republic, our rights, and our responsibilities before the world. The longer we fail to dispel them, the higher price we will pay. The following six truths, while perhaps not self-evident to the American public, are nevertheless conspicuously obvious to much the rest of the world.

Truth No. 1:  No "deal" of any kind can be made among the warring parties in Iraq that will bring stability and order, even temporarily.  

Ever since the war began to go badly in the summer of 2003, a mythology has arisen that a deal among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds could bring peace and stability to Iraq. First, the parliamentary elections were expected to be such a breakthrough. When peace and stability did not follow, the referendum on a constitution was proclaimed the panacea. When that failed, it was asserted that we just had not yet found the proper prime minister. Even today, the Iraq Study Group is searching for this holy grail. It doesn't exist.

Truth No. 2:  There was no way to have "done it right" in Iraq so that U.S. war aims could have been achieved. 

Virtually every new book published on the war, especially Cobra II, Fiasco, and State of Denial, reinforce the myth – the illusion – that  we could have won the war; we just did not plan properly and fight the war the right way. The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and most other major newspapers have consistently filled their opinion pages with arguments and testimonials to support that myth. (Professor Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins University offers the most recent conspicuous reinforcement of this myth in the Wall Street Journal, December 7, 2006.)

The fragmentation of the country, civil war, and the rise of outside influence from Iran, Syria, and other countries – all of these things might have been postponed for a time by different war plans and occupation polices. But failure would have eventually raised its ugly head. Possibly, some of the variables would be a bit different. For example, if the Iraqi military had not been dissolved and if most of the Baathist Party cadres not been disenfranchised, the Sunni factions, instead of the Shiites, probably would have owned the ministry of interior, the police, and several unofficial militias. The Shiites, in that event, would have been the insurgents, abundantly supplied by Iran, indiscriminately killing Sunni civilians, fighting the U.S. military forces, blowing up the power grid, and so on.

A different U.S. occupation plan might have changed the course Iraq has taken to civil war and fragmentation, but it could have not prevented that outcome.

Truth No. 3: The theory that "we broke it and therefore we own it," with all the moral baggage it implies, is simply untrue because it is not within U.S. power to "fix it." 

The president's cheerleaders in the run-up to the war now use this theory to rationalize our continued presence in Iraq, and in that way avoid admitting that they share the guilt for the crime of breaking Iraq in the first place.

Truth No. 4: The demand that the administration engage Iran and Syria directly, asking them to help stabilize Iraq, is patently naïve or cynically irresponsible until American forces begin withdrawing – and rapidly – so that there is no ambiguity about their complete and total departure.

Effective negotiations will be possible, even with Iran, but only after the U.S. withdraws.  And such negotiations must be based on a candid recognition that Iran will come out of this war with a much enhanced position in the Middle East. Until these realities are acknowledged, the planning staffs in the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department will not begin addressing the most important tasks awaiting them in confronting the post-Iraq War world.

First among them is how to help the Arab Gulf states cope with a stronger Iran, one that has territorial claims on the Arab side of the Gulf. Second is dealing with the increased threat to Israel that comes from the U.S . defeat in Iraq, its own recent misguided war against Hezbollah, looming instability in Lebanon, and the large number of experienced al Qaeda cadres produced by the war in Iraq. Moreover, as the Sunni-Shiite split in the Arab world spreads from Iraq into neighboring Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, not to mention Lebanon, the United States will be facing a dynamic it has little power to limit.

These new challenges will not be manageable by the United States alone. Europe will have to join with the United States in meeting them. American neocons who have sought to split the United States from Europe, as well as Europeans who tilt excessively in favor the Palestinians, will have to change their tunes if Israel is to survive the upheaval that the U.S. and the Israeli governments so eagerly perpetrated.

The media have not begun to recognize and explain the dramatic changes catalyzed in the Middle East by the war in Iraq. Most editors are not even willing to contemplate them, preferring to pretend they do not exist, probably because they bear some responsibility for creating them.         

Truth No. 5: The United States cannot prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

The only sure way to stop Iran's program is to invade with ground troops and occupy the country indefinitely.  Both Iran and North Korea learned from Israel's bombing of the Iraqi nuclear facilities and have hardened their own to make bombing only marginally effective at best. Having squandered ground force capabilities in Iraq, the U.S. does not have sufficient forces to invade Iran, even if that made sense. And bombing would produce all the undesirable consequences of that action but not the most desirable one. Yet the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and other newspapers editorialize as if this is not so. 

Truth No. 6: It is simply not possible to prevent more tragic Iraqi deaths in Iraq.

Many pundits and politicians – particularly those who howled for the invasion of Iraq in 2002 and 2003 — posture about human rights abuses that will occur if U.S. troops are withdrawn rapidly. The way to have avoided moral responsibility for these abuses was not to invade in the first place. At present, U. S. military forces in Iraq merely facilitate arrests and executions by Shiite officials in the police and some army units. These, of course, are mainly in reaction to the Baathist-led insurgency. This struggle will continue, with or without U.S. forces present, although the forms and tactics of the struggle will change after U.S. forces withdraw. An earlier withdrawal, one or two years ago, would probably have allowed this struggle to be fought to a conclusion by now. Our well-meaning efforts to prevent blood baths are more likely causing them to be bigger, not smaller.

The Iraq Study Group's recommendations could be used to dispel these myths and prompt a rapid withdrawal, but it remains to be seen if either the president and his aides or the Congress can or will use them for that purpose. The "one last big try" aspect of the recommendations, if pursued vigorously, will just make the final price the catastrophe higher. The media, by dispelling the foregoing list of myths, could make that less likely.

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Lieutenant General William E. Odom, U.S. Army (Ret.), is a Senior Fellow with Hudson Institute and a professor at Yale University. He was Director of the National Security Agency from 1985 to 1988. From 1981 to 1985, he served as Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence, the Army's senior intelligence officer. From 1977 to 1981, he was Military Assistant to the President's Assistant for National Security Affairs, Zbigniew Brzezinski.


Comments (10)

GT said:

Perhaps I am too naively optimistic about Iraq, but many of Odom’s “Truths” seems overly fatalistic. As for Truth #1, I don’t see how one can rule the possibility of settlement between the Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites “impossible”. No one is saying the country will magically transform into Disneyland’s “It’s a Small World”, but there is certainly a possibility that a basic agreement could be reached between some major figures of the three groups laying the groundwork for peaceful coexistence. This might not work, but it also might work. Impossible is going too far. In addition, I don’t think the parliamentary elections or the constitutional referendum were aimed directly at creating this multi-ethnic “deal” — they were meant to provide some legitimate sovereign government in which the deal could be reached. Truths 2, 3, and 6 basically say the same thing: The US did not and does not have the power to help the situation in Iraq. While I agree with Odom that we shouldn’t have invaded Iraq in the first place and that we should at least begin to pull our troops out very soon, these “Truths” are again very fatalistic and deterministic. Just because there is no “right” way which would have resulted in a perfect Iraq, it doesn’t mean we couldn’t have, and can, do it better. Perhaps I am being too nitpicky here and Odom’s arguments are meant to convince people of the need to withdraw troops through exaggeration of the situation in order to refute proponents of the “Keep troops there as long as it’s necessary” theory. I agree completely with Odom that the political environment has changed significantly in the past few years, and that few people have recognized it (although see Juan Cole’s Wednesday entry for an idea of what might be going on). But I also agree with Bushites that the ability of the US to function in the new Middle East (ie stabilize oil prices, resolve Israeli-Palestinian issues, negotiate with Iran) will depend on our influence in guiding Iraq towards peace and reconstruction. Moral responsibility in this matter is debatable, but strategic responsibility is not. Unless you disagree…

December 13th, 2006, 7:35 pm


John Kilian said:

I can agree with the General’s overall position that the United States military is limited in its ablility to improve the current situation in Iraq.
I do not completely concur that the end of the Hussein regime necessarily had to lead to a civil insurrection on the scale created by our lopsided tilt to the Shiite side.

Whether hasty or otherwise, there should be no ambiguity as to the direction the US is heading. The military occupation of Iraq needs to be phased out. Attempts to establish a modus vivendi between warring parties should be brokered as much as possible, and the US does have responsibility to do what it can to limit ethnic cleansing where militias are left unchecked. Backing the Iraqi army may be the best option left for the US military.

As far as negotiating with Syria and Iran, I think this may be a matter best left to the Iraqis and Saudis. Some movement on the part of the US is evident in the State Department’s sanctioning of visit by Senators Kerry and Dodd.


The general’s argument for the inevitability of Iran becoming a nuclear power does not take into account that Israel has nonconventional means to defend itself from a threat to its existence. Perhaps a nuclear Iran is not inevitable, but rather it is impossible.

December 13th, 2006, 7:46 pm


seeking the truth said:

I wonder what was the General’s assessment before the war!

December 13th, 2006, 9:55 pm


Wizart said:

There’s no evidence to suggest that U.S military withdrawal will lead to peace in Iraq. The General offers no solution except admitting to the military failure by withdrawing the troops.

Iraq could turn into a battle ground between Iran and Saudi Arabia with Arm merchants supporting the fighting until perhaps another Sadam emerges after perhaps thousands more dead or injured.

There will not necessarily be peace until Saudi and Russian oil reserves are exausted and there is a global need for Iraqi oil. Americans are now perhaps eager to draw down their troops before the next elections but the price to Iraqis could be a longer civil war until they realize they are fighting a war against hate which is not easy with all the arm merchants peddling around stuff.

December 13th, 2006, 11:42 pm


majedkhaldoun said:

in Brammertz report, paragraph 11 and 41 are important.
11 talk about interrogating highly suspected persons,this means he is going to order their arrest soon.
41 talk about how the mitsubishi was prepared, and what road it took to get to San George area.

I think he is close to make major announcements.

December 14th, 2006, 2:12 am


BertelTorp.dk » Irak over brillekanten said:

[…] 6 brutale sandheder om Irak, en US general taler ud (ENG) – link […]

December 14th, 2006, 2:15 am


ebw said:

Thanks for posting this Josh. I’ll post it also.

December 15th, 2006, 3:58 pm


Zachary Drake said:

I’m glad to hear he thinks the “Pottery Barn” rule is bunk (Truth #3). I agree wholeheartedly.

December 17th, 2006, 4:25 am


jkoch said:

Odom was skeptical about invading Iraq from the beginning and remains, to this day, the one senior military voice who unequivocally favors a rapid withdrawal–with no ifs, ands, or buts. See his “Cut and Run? You Bet!” artile in Foreign Affairs from last year. Biden should call Odom as a witness at the upcoming Senate Intelligence Committee hearings on whether to try a last “surge” to defeat the insurgency. However, even though Odom is 99% right, Biden and the other Democrats will probably let W send 30k more troops and let the surge fail for fundamental reasons. Otherwise, McCain will claim in 2008 that the Dems tied the arms of the military or stabbed the war on terror in the back. Myth-mongering and scape-goating get very fierce after any defeat. Rather than giving it a fresh myth, better to let the neocon machine destroy itself utterly.

December 27th, 2006, 4:06 pm


Jean SmilingCoyote said:

Admittedly I don’t have time right now to study these 6 Truths thoroughly; just skimmed them. I don’t notice any evidence that anyone in power has considered my suggestion that we share the stories of Nunavut Territory [Canada] and the “Great Law of Peace” of the Haudenosaunee [“Iroquois Confederacy” to you] with the people of Iraq, as possibly educational examples. Nor has anyone confronted the sexism in the conflict. My tongue is not too far in my cheek when I suggest we arm all the WOMEN in Iraq and get out of their way. I do believe sharing of the Nunavut and Haudenosaunee stories would have resulted in many deaths being prevented. It is close to treason for USA leaders to act as if there are no potentially useful examples from Native America. It is most certainly racist.

December 27th, 2006, 6:36 pm


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