General Ray Odierno lives in the third person regarding Iraq. “Mistakes were made” for sure, but not by him, even when he was in charge. Somehow the mistakes happened temporally on his watch, but by someone, never named. Certainly not by General Ray Odierno.
Continuing a media-led open sucking chest wound process of giving a platform to those who were responsible for the current disaster in Iraq to explain anew to us what happened in Iraq (short version: they didn’t do it), the Aspen Security Forum featured a long, sad dirge by Odierno on Iraq.
One could presume Odierno knows something about Iraq; he spent a lot of time there in key positions of responsibility and built up quite a resume: From October 2001 to June 2004, General Odierno commanded the 4th Infantry Division, leading the division in combat. He was Commanding General of the Multi-National Corps in during the famous Surge that was fantasized as ending the war. Odierno was also Commander of United States Joint Forces Command, meaning he was in charge of every American service member in the country. It was during this time that Odierno had personal responsibility for implementing General Petraeus’ counter-insurgency doctrine, overseeing the 2010 Iraqi elections that gave Prime Minister Maliki his second term, and working hand-in-hand with the American embassy in Baghdad to ensure the training of the Iraqi police and army before the U.S. retreat from Iraq at the end of 2010. Odierno is currently Chief of Staff of the Army. Tragically, Odierno’s son, an Army captain, was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade in Baghdad in August 2004 and lost his left arm.
So it is with some sad amusement (think slowing down to gawk at a car wreck on the side of the road) to read Odierno’s comments from the Aspen Security Forum. The general was led through his comments by David Sanger of The New York Times. Sanger himself in 2003 was part of the Times’ wholesale acceptance of the Bush White House’s falsehoods on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so the two make quite a pair.
But no matter; that was in the hard air of then, this is now.
Here are some key points Odierno made at the 2014 Forum:
— “The country was going in the right direction when the United States left in 2011, but Iraqi leaders overestimated the progress made by their military and government institutions.”
— “The problem in Iraq was not the training of the Iraqi security forces, although their ability to sustain their own training was ‘disappointing.’ The problem was a lack of confidence, trust and loyalty between troops and their leaders because of politicization of Iraq’s military leadership.”
— “Leaders were changed out. Many of them weren’t qualified. There was some sectarian nature to the changes that were made. Members of the Iraqi security forces were unwilling to fight for a government that they perceived as not standing up for all the different peoples of Iraq, so when they were challenged, you saw them very quickly fade away.”
— “But military power isn’t enough to solve the problems in Iraq, or elsewhere in the Middle East for that matter. The lesson here is [that] you’ve got to stand up an institution. And that includes not just a military, but also a functioning government. Iraq will continue to disintegrate if the unity government doesn’t re-form… The good thing about this is they are in the process of forming a new government. They just had an election. The hope is that the government that would come out would be one that clearly supports a unity government as we go forward. Will that solve the problem?” My guess is not completely. But that’s the first step.”
Odierno has rehearsed his lines– from 2010. Here’s what he claimed after the 2010 elections in Iraq: “”Iraqi security forces performed superbly… I think it was very much a success for the Iraqi people yesterday.” He said earlier that same year “Iraq presents a solid opportunity to help in stabilizing the Middle East.” The Washington Post, never a stranger to hagiography, said on Odierno’s departure from Iraq: “He leaves behind a war not yet won, not yet lost and not yet over. The gap has narrowed in one notable way: Iraq’s security forces, trained, equipped and to a large extent designed by the U.S. military, are increasingly professional and competent.”
The very factors Odierno speaks today of almost as if he was an independent third party dispassionately looking back are the same ones he was responsible for resolving over his many years of command in Iraq. Odierno watched as the United States poured $25 billion into training the gleefully third world standard Iraqi Army he now says was not properly trained. He was handmaiden to the 2010 elections that saw the Iranians broker a Maliki victory and the installation of a Shia-based non-representative government. He oversaw the military reconstruction efforts over years of the Occupation that failed (alongside the State Department’s efforts) to create the very institutions whose absence he now decries. Despite all this, the best Odierno can come up with as an explanation for why everything is a mess in 2014 is the Iraqi’s messed up his good work.
But if Maliki is anything more than a talisman for the whole mess of post-2003 Iraq, he was certainly America’s choice (twice) for the role, and it is unfair to simply fob current events off on him, or assume things will turn around when he is sent off-stage like a modern day Ngo Dinh Diem. Same for “the Iraqis,” whoever they are in this context, who have been designated as a group the responsible party for failing to reassemble the broken country the U.S. created, uninvited, and then left for them.
Odierno is far from alone in absolving himself of responsibility for all the good he failed to do. The big difference is that Odierno likely knows better.
While in Iraq, I met Odierno several times. He traveled tirelessly and spoke to everyone. Addressing small groups of his field officers, the general was often more considered in his remarks, and more aware of the nuanced ground truth, than in his photo-op statements. Yet for all his McNamara of 1965-like public optimism during the war, Odierno does not now seem able to rise to the McNamara of 1995 in admitting his shortcomings, and those of his war. In not doing so– as McNamara did when he remained silent over Vietnam for so long– he blocks the lessons of the past from informing the present. Odierno, like all of Washington vis-à-vis Iraq, seems to believe he is exempt from history.