Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Exit Lessons: The Search Is on for Graceful Strategies for Exiting Iraq and Afghanistan. Apart from Victory, History Suggests, There Are None

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Exit Lessons: The Search Is on for Graceful Strategies for Exiting Iraq and Afghanistan. Apart from Victory, History Suggests, There Are None

Article excerpt

IN THE MIDST OF NEGOTIATING THE SOVIET withdrawal from Afghanistan in the mid-1980s, a Western diplomat confided to United Nations mediator Diego Cordovez, "The Russians would like to get out of Afghanistan, but they don't know how. And we in the West would like to cooperate and help them, but we don't know how either." The Soviet experience is not unique. Historically, it has always been easier to launch a military intervention than to end one, especially when the effort has not gone well. From the United States in Vietnam to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan to Israel in Lebanon, intervening powers have often found it exceedingly difficult to extricate themselves from bad situations. As the United States is learning in Iraq, even when you are determined to make an exit, it is easier said than done.

The debate over exit strategies originated in America's painful experience during the Vietnam War, which led some foreign-policy thinkers to conclude that an exit plan should be a prerequisite for any military intervention. The debate intensified in the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War, as the United States undertook interventions that appeared to be matters of choice more than necessity. In laying down what came to be called the Powell Doctrine, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell included an exit strategy on his list of conditions that should be met before the United States committed forces overseas. But from Somalia to the Balkans and Haiti, none of the subsequent conflicts to which U.S. forces were committed in the 1990s met this condition, much less Powell's chief principle that interventions must be directly tied to the long-term security of American interests. These costly and inconclusive efforts led critics to put even greater emphasis on questions about how the story was going to end. A year before he was elected president, George W. Bush questioned President Bill Clinton's 1999 decision to intervene in Kosovo: "Victory means exit strategy, and it's important for the president to explain to us what the exit strategy is."

Yet for all the talk of exit strategies, there has been little attempt to review their history and assess their effectiveness. The results of such a study are chastening. Since the end of World War II, the United States has been very active in the world, but it has had no monopoly on large-scale intervention. The Soviet Union was the other obvious player in the postwar period, but there were also interventions by Egypt (in Yemen), Cuba (in Angola and Ethiopia), and India (in Sri Lanka), among others. The majority of these states' interventions did not end well. (Among the notable exceptions, at least from the perspective of the intervening power, were the U.S. defense of South Korea from 1950 to '53, the Soviet Union's 1956 invasion of Hungary, and the American overthrow of President Manuel Noriega's corrupt Panamanian regime in 1989.) A survey of nearly two dozen major military interventions since the end of World War II reveals that intervening powers were able to craft effective exit strategies in only about a third of the cases--and those happen to be the cases in which the goals of the interventions had already been met. Both the successes and the failures yield a handful of clear lessons about getting out.


Lesson 1: How you leave doesn't matter very much.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, former U.S. national security advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski, a Democrat, and Brent Scowcroft, a Republican, published a much-noted book in which they debated the future of U.S. foreign policy, strongly disagreeing on Iraq. Brzezinski called for a rapid withdrawal, arguing that it would encourage the Iraqi people to take responsibility for their own governance. Scowcroft contended that a quick pullout would have disastrous consequences for Iraq, the region, and the United States.

The assumption by both these eminent foreign-policy thinkers that it matters a great deal how you leave is widely shared, and it has a surface logic. …

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