The best exit strategy: no strategy

Once again, the tired old fossil called the “exit strategy” is being hauled out, creaking and groaning, and once more pushed to the forefront.

I can understand its appeal. The war in Iraq is ugly, and we Americans don’t like seeing this go on and on and on. But the idea that we should set a date by which we will leave, come hell or high water, is just plain stupid.

As others have pointed out, the way one wins a war is by either killing enough of your enemy that he can’t fight, or convincing them that they cannot hope to win. This is also known as attacking their means or their morale.

Right now, the terrorists (I refuse to call them “insurgents”) in Iraq are hoping that if they kill enough of us, we’ll get fed up and leave. In the meantime, though, they’re losing a LOT more people than we are. Further, the foreign fighters’ propensity for killing civilian Iraqis is starting to grate on the nerves of the home-grown terrorists, and we are starting to see a rise in “red-on-red” incidents, where the two are actually coming to blows and killing each other instead of us. This is a GOOD thing.

But let’s presume we do set a deadline for our withdrawal from Iraq. Immediately we give a HUGE boost to the terrorists’ morale — “all we have to do is hang on until December 2006 (for example), and we win by default!” The immediate result of a timetable for withdrawal will most likely be an immediate decrease in deaths, but that will be merely the calm before the storm, as they will be saving up and resting and re-grouping and re-arming for the civil war that will break out the instant the last American leaves Iraq.

But there’s a far more compelling reason why setting an “exit strategy” or a “timetable for withdrawal” is such a bad idea: they don’t work.

Let’s apply that notion to previous American wars, and see how it played out there. I’m going to just limit it to those after the Civil War, as all prior to that were fought almost entirely on American territory, or lands that would become part of the United States.

So let’s start with the Spanish-American War — America’s first taste of foreign adventurism. At the conclusion of the war, we occupied two major territories — the Philippines and Cuba. We kept the Philippines right up until World War II, until the Japanese took it, and then we took it back. We maintained a military presence there right through the Philippines’ independence up until 1991, when they asked us to leave — which we did without a single shot fired.

And in Cuba, we also granted them independence, with the exception of one small piece of real estate that we have kept until this day. But I’m sure we’ve all heard enough about Guantanamo Bay lately.

In World War II, we fought Germany and Japan. After defeating them, we occupied them. And 60 years later, we still have forces in both nations. I have yet to hear anyone propose an “exit strategy” for either nation.

In Korea, we fought the communist North to a standstill, and that war still technically continues. We still have a sizable military presence in South Korea, as a deterrent against the conflict flaring up. I don’t hear any talks about “exiting” South Korea, but all it would take would be a formal request from the South Korean government that we pack up and ship out, and we would do so — as we have in several other cases (see the Philippines, for one).

On the other hand, let’s look at three other wars. In World War I, we won the war, but “lost” the peace. When it became clear that our allies were intent on “punishing” Germany for the war, President Wilson said “to hell with this” and the United States retreated back into isolationism. And the highly-punitive and ruinous terms of the Armistice did, indeed, lay the groundwork for Hitler’s rise and brought on World War II.

In Vietnam, we concluded a treaty with the North and pulled out our forces. Within two years, the North tossed aside their agreement and attacked again, conquering the entire South and subjecting the entire nation to brutal Communist rule.

And in the first Gulf War, we liberated Kuwait and crushed Iraq’s military, driving deep into Iraq. But President Bush, under tremendous pressure from our allies in the Arab world, refrained from pushing all the way to Baghdad and driving Saddam from power — a decision that has been second-guessed from the outset, and probably will continue to be so for decades, if not centuries. Instead, we pulled out our forces on the ground, leaving only aircraft enforcing “no-fly zones” as the only presence within Iraq. By leaving Saddam in control, we allowed him to rebuild his power — but this time not through military might, but through money and influence by corrupting the ever-corruptible United Nations, laying the groundwork for the current situation.

I think it was Secretary Rumsfeld who said it, and said it best: we don’t have an exit strategy in Iraq, we have a victory strategy.

Because exit strategies are for fighting and ending wars — not winning them.

Darwin strikes again
Weekend Caption Contest™ Winners


  1. Christopher Meisenzahl June 27, 2005
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