At the sharp end

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 Beijing Olympics. US 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: that of Bill Odom. A retired army lieutenant general and former head of the National Security Agency, William E. Odom died on May 30 after a long and distinguished career in American public service. Odom had a keen grasp of the possible, and knew 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 characterises 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 towards China on the occasion of its first Olympic Games. He recognised that a big guy didn't begrudge others their successes, and that magnanimity and grace went a long way.

With chemical runoff polluting farmlands and other high-profile cases of environmental degradation, China is surely not without blemish, and labour abuses are still pervasive. But what country has industrialised 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 the hope of a better life.

Odom understood that you can't solve every problem at once, and that you should keep means and ends distinct in your mind, concentrating your efforts where they accomplish most. He knew that a country couldn'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? Last year, 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 land.


Odom tolerated a degree of adversity abroad because he could tell when it mattered and when it didn't. He never pulled his punches to please his audiences. It was a particular pleasure watching him clean the floor with people, or having him clean the floor with you. And when he reached a conclusion, he shared it whether or not it would win him affection. When I asked him about the worst-case terrorism scenario, what happens if terrorists detonate a nuclear weapon in an American city, he said simply: 'Destroy a city? Yeah, they might do that. But that wouldn't be the end of the United States, and that might be the price you pay to keep your liberty.'

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.

Even the folksy phrases and metaphors he dropped in passing were edifying. We'd talk about a thorny issue like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and he'd say something like 'maybe this is one of those cans we just kick down the road'. Some politicians go their whole lives without ever recognising their own limitations and entertaining thoughts like that.

Odom had learned the limits of power first hand in combat and, later, serving alongside national security adviser 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. 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 armour officer, he once said that '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 US, and China is about to claim its place in the community of nations by hosting the Olympics.


Odom would have had no problem seeing China host the Olympics, and he would have watched with a smile as Chinese leaders pivoted skilfully 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 knew that, at its best, his country acted like one, too.

David Donadio is a writer and editor in Washington