The Exit Strategy Delusion

Interesting article about Exit Strategies when the Democrats wanted to be involved in a war, Bosnia to be exact.

Note how Democrats advocated AGAINST exit strategies and deadlines while Republicans like John McCain advocated FOR exit strategies.

From Foreign Affairs, January/ February 1998

[…] “A consensus is developing,” says Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, “that there will be or should be some form of U.S. military presence” after the current force leaves.

“If we pull out on an arbitrary deadline,” says the architect of the 1995 Dayton Accord, Richard Holbrooke, “the situation in Bosnia will become chaotic, eroding the achievements so far.” Such talk does not sit well with Congress, where many were hostile to the original mission and outraged at its first extension last year. The stage is set for a battle this spring over U.S. policy in Bosnia.

The administration and Congress do seem to agree on one important issue: any new Bosnia mission must have an “exit strategy.” In her confirmation hearings, Albright assured Senate questioners that she “would never advise using American forces . . . where there is no exit strategy.” In his confirmation hearings, Secretary of Defense William Cohen explained that before deploying troops he would ask questions such as, “Do we have a so-called exit strategy? We know how to get in. How do we get out?” In 1996 then-national security adviser Anthony Lake even crafted an explicit “exit strategy doctrine,” which had as its centerpiece the principle, “Before we send our troops into a foreign country we should know how and when we’re going to get them out.” Congress has mandated an exit strategy for any new Bosnia deployment.

The extent to which the concept has become conventional wisdom was underlined when Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) rebuked the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Henry Shelton, for what he saw as the Bosnia policy’s missing ingredient: “Usually, we don’t go into things without an exit strategy, as you know, General.”


By emphasizing lockstep adherence to original plans and precise cost and time estimates, the idea of an exit strategy contributes to a false notion that military interventions are mechanical tasks like building a new kitchen, rather than strategic contests marked by friction and uncertainty. The military interventions under discussion these days may not resemble standard conventional wars, but the more ambitious ones are nevertheless marked by potentially hostile environments and the threat or use of force by all parties. In such situations it is absurd to bind U.S. forces to a fixed timetable or demand guaranteed outcomes as a precondition for action.


Nevertheless, withdrawing American forces from an intervention such as Bosnia will probably produce chaos on the ground unless one of three alternatives is ready to maintain order: a follow-on force, a single competent local political entity, or a clear division and stable balance of power among local factions. Paving the way for at least one of these must be a central part of an intervention’s overall strategy. If for domestic political reasons an American follow-on force is not in the cards, then either a foreign force or a local solution must be arranged. If the United States does not want to stay for the long term and the three options above have little chance, then the United States should not intervene in the first place.


Many people who talk about exit strategies are chiefly concerned with preventing American strength and prestige from being squandered in foreign jungles or mountains. Lake’s “exit strategy doctrine,” for example, was offered as a way of dealing with messy post-Cold War situations that seemed to merit our attention but did not threaten vital security interests. In these cases, he argued, a sensible, middle-of-the-road path would be for the United States to make only a good-faith effort to attack problems, rather than a commitment to solving them. Explicit time limits on American deployments would give foreigners a brief window of opportunity to reach for a better future while avoiding difficult entanglements for the United States should they fail. Deadlines would serve as boundaries for American efforts and spur local parties to take responsibility for their own societies.


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