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Exit Strategy

By James H. Nolt

In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, military strategists began to more seriously consider the importance of an “exit strategy.” The idea, as I mentioned last week, is that in an era of limited war, it is much easier to start a war than to end it. 

This has become a perennial problem of American foreign policy for two reasons: First, since World War II, wars have never been declared by Congress, as required by the Constitution. Instead, most have started by presidential fiat, not direct enemy attack. Second, American wars generally have limited but ill-defined objectives not nearly as clear-cut as the “unconditional surrender” policies adopted for the Civil War and World War II. Thus, wars tend to start somewhat ambiguously—national security is not so vitally threatened—and end (if at all) without a clear victory. Some commentators have referred to these limited wars as wars of choice rather than wars of necessity.

The first such intervention, the Korean War, was precipitated by a North Korean invasion of South Korea. The U.S., like many other United Nations members, rushed troops to Korea under the authority of a U.N. resolution rather than a congressional declaration of war. The invasion from the North was quickly reversed. U.S. and South Korean forces soon overran much of North Korea until China intervened and threw them out, leading to a bloody stalemate and eventual negotiated armistice that restored a border near the prewar line. Although the war started under President Truman, it took the death of Soviet leader Stalin and the succession of President Eisenhower to finally conclude the fighting. Arguably, it was difficult for a Democrat like Truman to agree to a compromise peace without appearing weak to his Republican opponents. Nevertheless, the stalemated and indecisive war contributed to the Democrat’s loss in the 1952 election.

The escalation leading to the Vietnam War was much more gradual than the Korean case. There was less support from U.S. allies and only a resolution from Congress, rather than an outright declaration of war. However, the war dragged on much longer, absorbing a greater commitment of U.S. forces, funds, and lives. As in the previous decade, a Democratic president escalated involvement largely to avoid criticism from domestic political opponents, but never saw a path to victory or “exit strategy.” Like Truman, President Johnson dropped out of the race for re-election under pressure from widespread opposition to an expensive, stalemated war. As before, the Democrats lost the election. President Nixon, formerly Eisenhower’s vice president, won with a promise of a secret plan to end the war. Publicly, the plan, which was called “Vietnamization,” was to turn the war effort over to South Vietnamese forces. Secretly, though, Nixon tried threats (which failed) and then promises to North Vietnam’s allies, China and the Soviet Union. Nixon developed relations with both communist powers in return for their pressure on North Vietnam to sign a temporary peace allowing U.S. forces to withdraw, which Nixon called “peace with honor.” Nixon won a big re-election victory as a result. Unknown to the American public at the time, his secret promise to the communist side was that victory could be theirs if only they would give him a “decent interval” after the withdrawal of U.S. forces before overrunning Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital. Nixon, like Eisenhower, managed to snatch domestic political victory from the jaws of overseas defeat.

President George H.W. Bush marshaled a vast multinational coalition force to throw Iraqi invaders out of Kuwait during the Gulf War of 1991. The balance of forces was such that total defeat of the Iraqi army and the overthrow of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s regime was easily possible, but deliberately avoided. Bush, his advisors, and many of his Arab allies believed that total defeat of Hussein’s regime was not desirable, since it would benefit primarily Iran, considered an even more dangerous adversary. Although Bush’s restraint was little appreciated at the time, there was considerable logic to it, as the Iraq War would show.

When President George W. Bush initiated the Iraq War in 2003, the justification was hollow, based on faulty intelligence and perhaps a real desire to gain control over oil. At the time, I said that the war would be relatively easy, but the occupation would be costly and perhaps never ending. Hussein was overthrown, but the destruction of the Iraqi state led to chaos and perpetual warlord rivalries, ultimately costing the U.S. a lot but benefitting primarily Iran. The U.S. remains embroiled there today.

Likewise, the invasion of Afghanistan, rather than aiming primarily at al-Qaida, the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., instead focused on replacing the Taliban regime that had sheltered al-Qaida. Although a U.S.-supported regime was installed, a decade and a half later it is still incapable of securing the country or its own rule without perpetual external support, much like the pro-Soviet Afghan regimes of the 1970s. The resurgent Taliban remains undefeated.

The wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Syria have fostered a kind potent myth. Hardliners argue if it were not for weak-willed American leadership, victory could be swift and certain. President Trump used this sort of argument against President Obama and Secretary Clinton during his successful 2016 campaign. Yet, what all these cases lacked was a reasonable exit strategy. There were reasons, often domestic political ones, for going to war, but little idea of how it could end. 

Arguably, if the U.S. had cut a deal with Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh in 1945, as he hoped, or after the Geneva Conference of 1954, the result would have been far better for all concerned. Vietnam would be governed not so differently as today, but with millions fewer dead and much environmental destruction avoided. We would have had the same situation in Korea today if Truman had been content to stop at the North-South border in 1950, rather than invading the North and bringing China in, delaying for decades the more peaceful East Asia that prevails today. George H.W. Bush’s clear-cut exit strategy after the Gulf War is the exception that proves the rule: Limited war is most effective if the objectives are clear and limited. An early diplomatic solution often secures national objectives better than an unending use of force. Yet for a strong power like the U.S., ongoing commitment of force often seems like a politically safer course than judicious negotiations, especially with repressive foreign leaders.

The U.S. has attained a degree of power today that few militaries in the world can stand up to in a conventional war. But once enemy territory is occupied, securing and then governing it is much more difficult than pushing out conventional forces. Armies are not particularly good at governing, especially when they know little of the local language and culture. They cannot help stoking local resentment and hostility. Nor can state building be accomplished merely by foreign aid or other types of spending. Money tends to disappear and fuel corruption in poorly developed states. Social change must be popular and organic to a culture to be durable. It is nearly impossible to impose positive change from outside, though it is possible to destroy and disrupt indigenous life. When states and stable societies disintegrate, terrorism multiplies. Consequently, as difficult as it often is to resist the temptation to solve problems with war, unless the problem is easily solvable by force and an exit strategy is clear, the “cure” of war is all too often worse than the disease. The problem with exit strategies, however, is that no matter how reasonable they are, they will always be open to domestic criticism as weak and inconclusive.

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James H. Nolt is a senior fellow at World Policy Institute and an adjunct associate professor at New York University.

[Photo courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration]

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