With the presidency of George W. Bush in its last months, and a new campaign now in full swing, American politicians have taken to grandstanding about the 2008 Beijing Olympics. U.S. foreign policy has always been a precarious balance of cold calculation and moral considerations, and some Americans see these historic games as an opportunity to lecture the Chinese government about human rights violations.
Sadly absent in the din is a voice of uncommon brilliance and unfailing sobriety: Bill Odom. A retired Army lieutenant general and former head of the National Security Agency, William E. Odom died May 30 after a long and distinguished career in American public service. Odom had a keen grasp of the possible, and recognized that you didn’t accomplish much by slapping people in public. When I asked him in late 2006 how he would handle the mullahs of Iran, for instance, his response characterizes the American approach to the world at its best: “We’re big guys. We can talk to them.”
I’ll bet he had the same sentiments toward China on the occasion of its first Olympic games. He recognized that big guys didn’t begrudge others their successes, and that magnanimity and grace went a long way.
With chemical runoff polluting farmlands in Tai Hu and other high-profile cases of environmental degradation, China is surely not without blemish, and labor abuses are still pervasive. But what country has industrialized without upheaval? In Massachusetts in the 1830s, the workers who built the Lawrence and Lowell canals were not blessed with competitive medical plans, but they too bore great indignities in hopes of a better life.
Odom understood that you can’t solve every problem at once, and that you should concentrate your efforts where they accomplish the most. He also understood that countries can’t create constitutional regimes out of thin air. “Remember back in the Carter years, that list of states we were told were ‘developing democracies?’” he once asked some former colleagues at an event at the Hudson Institute. “Mexico? Pakistan? Well, they’re still developing, aren’t they?”
In China, too, politics may not look like a town hall meeting, but who can say that they’re not moving in the right direction? In 2007, China enacted remarkable new protections for private property, and though enforcement still leaves much to be desired, for the first time, rural Chinese have the basis for legal recourse against officials and companies that appropriate or pollute their lands.
As a servant of elected leaders, Odom’s rough edges were never smoothed over by the demands of elected office itself, and that made him indispensable: He was a voice of unwashed reason.
“ Sadly absent in the din is a voice of uncommon brilliance and unfailing sobriety: Bill Odom. ”
He had learned the limits of power firsthand in combat, and later, serving alongside national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski through the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian hostage crisis. He was comfortable with the existence of regimes that had different kinds of governments, different cultural values, and different priorities than the U.S. In seeking to preserve the peace, he never desired to remake the world in his image. Americans now lecturing the Chinese could learn from his example.
An unparalleled intellect, Odom had a talent for cutting things at wild but insightful angles. Of the Vietnam War, in which he’d served with distinction as an armor officer, he once said “the containment of China was a Soviet foreign policy objective. I never understood why we were deploying half a million troops to do it.”
Almost 40 years after the Vietnam War, and Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China, the American outlook on Asia has changed tremendously. Both China and Vietnam boast growing economies and greatly improved relations with the U.S., and China is about to claim its place in the community of nations by hosting its first-ever Olympic games.
Odom would have had no problem seeing China host the Olympics, and he would have watched with a smile as Chinese leaders pivoted skillfully in response to new public scrutiny. He was a remarkable man and a consummate public servant — that rarest creature who lived a life of action and of the mind, and combined the best qualities of an individual and a political being.
He was a big guy. And he understood that at its best, his country acted like one, too.