The Pentagon's Three-Star Wise Man: Gen. Bill Odom

Washington has its share of retired generals who go on TV and blather the administration line fed them, we have recently learned, at private Pentagon briefings. And then there was Bill Odom.

A retired three-star general who was once a senior officer on President Carter's national-security staff and later chief of the supersecret National Security Agency during the Reagan administration, Odom was one of the first Washington insiders to publicly predict disaster in Iraq. In February 2003, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, when most of the Washington military establishment and much of the mainstream media (including me) were in a hawkish mode, Odom had this to say in The Washington Post: "The issue is not whether the Iraqi people will greet U.S. soldiers as their liberators, but what will they do six months after that. I find it naive and disingenuous to claim that you can create democracy in Iraq any time soon. The administration has already assured us that the U.S. will not stay there for very long, and, if that is the case, then the goal of establishing a constitutional system in Iraq is a joke."

Odom, who died last weekend of heart attack at the age of 75, was refreshingly blunt. He loved to explode Washington clichés. CUT AND RUN? YOU BET! was the headline on a piece he wrote about Iraq in 2006. VICTORY IS NOT AN OPTION was the headline on another column in 2007. Odom was no isolationist. He believed that America ran a benevolent, rather unintended but necessary, global empire keeping the peace so that other nations did not go to war with each other. A West Pointer who became a scholar after serving as colonel in Vietnam, he studied at Columbia under Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was immediately impressed by Odom's restless, inventive mind, somewhat uncharacteristic in senior Army officers. Appointed Carter's national-security adviser, Brzezinski brought Odom to the White House as his military aide. He was an ardent cold warrior, but never backward looking. Rather, he had an uncanny ability to see several moves ahead--as he did in Iraq.

I ran into Odom at a Christmas party last December, and asked him what he thought about the push by some old national-security experts like Robert McNamara and Henry Kissinger to rid the world of nuclear weapons. He was skeptical about such utopianism, but he had a practical suggestion. The United States, starting now, should raise an international fund to rebuild North Korea. Why? Partly as a bargaining chip. Odom predicted that North and South Korea would inevitably unite--and immediately become a nuclear power. If so, predicted Odom, Japan would immediately become a nuclear power and we would be faced with a three-way Korea-Japan-China nuclear face off in a part of the world that has been stable in large part because ancient enmities have been subdued by the American defense umbrella. The United States and its allies should offer the reunited Korea a deal: a vast fund to rebuild on the condition that Korea agree to never go nuclear (and back that promise with guarantees of international inspection).

This was a typical Odom idea, bold but also shrewd. Obama is said to be looking for smart Wise Men types to counsel him if he is elected president. Too bad Bill Odom will not be around to answer the call.