Academic journal article Parameters

Exit Strategy Delusions

Academic journal article Parameters

Exit Strategy Delusions

Article excerpt

During the past decade of US military interventions in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Balkans, there has been a rising clamor on Capitol Hill and within the Pentagon for "clear exit strategies" before resorting to force overseas. It is believed that road maps for post-intervention military extrication can and must be crafted in advance of military action, and that such maps can and must be followed throughout the course of intervention. The United States remains stuck in the Balkans, and came close to being sucked into a Vietnam-like quagmire in Somalia, some argue, because the Clinton Administration allowed the missions there to expand without inquiring into the likely consequences. The Clinton Administration failed to follow the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine--the military's professional take on the lessons of the Vietnam War, which demands both clear objectives and the use of overwhelming force to achieve those objectives swiftly and conclusively.

Obviously, it is foolish to undertake military action without having clear ideas on political purpose and the connection between that purpose and the military means selected to achieve it. Strategy is a plan of military action to accomplish a political object. A resort to force motivated by simple frustration and without contemplation of the enemy's probable response does not pass for strategy, as the Clinton Administration did indeed learn when it launched its initially feeble air "war" against Serbia in the spring of 1999. Strategy requires formulation of a desired political end-state and the appropriate application of sufficient force to achieve that end-state. Getting into a war without a reasonable idea of how to get out of it--i.e., without a concept of success--doomed US military intervention in Vietnam.

That said, the idea of a sure-fire, pre-hostilities road map to post-hostilities military extrication is a delusion. Having a concept of success is always good, but having a healthy appreciation of the difficulties of maintaining it in the face of war's vicissitudes is even better.

The Unfortunate Intrusion of Reality

Obstacles to arriving at the intended destination abound. First of all, states that are the objects rather than the subjects of military intervention, and especially of surprise attack, can hardly be expected to devise exit strategies in advance. Did Franklin Roosevelt, on the night before Pearl Harbor, have an exit strategy for waging war against Japan? Was he not much more worried about the consequences of Nazi aggression in Europe than Japanese depredations in East Asia, and had he not already decided that, in the event of war with both Germany and Japan, the United States would pursue a Germany-first strategy?

Second, exit strategies are hostage to military performance. Defeat or stalemate on the battlefield forces reduction of political objectives, whereas military success encourages their expansion. Initial war aims, especially in long wars, rarely survive intact, and new war aims, unanticipated at the start of hostilities, emerge during the course of hostilities. Thus, the road map may remain the same, but the destination changes. The United States entered the Vietnam War in 1965 with the objective of preserving an independent, noncommunist South Vietnam, an objective which subsequent military stalemate reduced to extrication without humiliation.

In the case of democratic governments, war aims are subject to the influence of public opinion as well as events on the battlefield. The United States could not be militarily defeated in Vietnam, but its political will to continue fighting declined after the Tet Offensive. President Nixon clearly would have preferred a conclusive victory in Indochina, but he understood that the political traffic back home would not bear its costs. There are also cases where leaders are driven by public opinion into expanded war aims and peace settlement terms they believe to be unwise. …

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