The Exit Strategy Delusion

Gideon Rose. Foreign Affairs. Volume 77, Issue 1, January/February 1998.

Strategic Vogue

Come June, the American troops helping to maintain peace in Bosnia are scheduled to come home. Recently, however, some senior administration officials have begun murmuring about staying on longer. “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.”

In fact, there is nothing usual about exit strategies; the concept’s current vogue has little to do with time-honored verities of military intervention, and much to do with the politics of post-Cold War foreign policy. Borrowed from the business world, the term was not applied to foreign or military policy before 1993, and became part of the vernacular only during the withdrawal from Somalia later that year. Its current popularity epitomizes the new national quest for intervening on the cheap, with the troops home for Christmasor better yet, Thanksgiving.

In the past, policymakers often gave little thought to the specific objectives and potential endings of their foreign adventures, with chaotic results. But the idea of a formal exit strategy, with its antiinterventionist bias and stress on rigid public planning, is misguided in theory and unhelpful in practice. Instead of obsessing about the exit, planners should concentrate on the strategy. The key question is not how we get out, but why we are getting in.

Opposing exit strategies does not necessarily mean favoring the waste of American blood and money in endless futile attempts to impose order or create harmony in Bosnia or anywhere else. The main reason to jettison the concept is because it lumps together several important issues that are best handled separately. The first question is when open-ended military commitments might actually make sense, and the answer is that it depends on the American interests at stake and the policy options available. The second question is how interventions can be closed out smoothly, and the answer is that they should leave some kind of stable order behind. The third question is how overcommitment can be avoided, and the answer is through selective intervention rather than the imposition of time limits. Finally, the fourth question is how unexpected developments should be handled, and the answer is according to well-developed contingency plans.

Think Strategy, Not Exit

If you ask most politicians what an exit strategy is, they will look at you blankly, because they consider the answer obvious: a plan to bring American troops home from some mission abroad. The simplicity of this definition reveals the concept’s political, as opposed to intellectual, origins: it is a response to perceived popular impatience with messy foreign entanglements. It follows that interventions should be designed to be painless and self-limiting. Assurances to that effect should be offered to Congress and the public as a precondition for authorization, and initial plans should be followed strictly as events unfold. “Mission creep” should not be allowed because it leads to “quagmires.”

The insistence that troops should never be deployed unless an administration can tell Congress and the public in advance just how long the mission will last, how much it will cost, and precisely how it will end represents a Somalia corollary to the Vietnam syndrome in American foreign policy. This is why the call for exit strategies fits so neatly into updated versions of the Pentagon’s restrictive post-Vietnam conditions for using force, articulated by Caspar Weinberger in 1984 and supplemented by Colin Powell a few years later. However, the concept has major drawbacks.

By definition, the term biases discussion in favor of foreign military commitments that can be terminated easily and against those that appear more open-ended. By making an exit strategy a prerequisite for the deployment of troops, neoisolationists preempt consideration of some worthwhile operations, allowing a general rule rather than specific arguments to do their work for them. Some of the missions that would have failed to meet such a standard include American participation in NATO, the post-armistice defense of South Korea, the post-Camp David peacekeeping in the Sinai, and the post-Gulf War containment of Iraq-not to mention the stated U.S. intention to maintain 100,000 troops in Asia. Indeed, an exit strategy in Asia would contradict the very purpose of the American presence there.

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.

By emphasizing the public aspects of intervention planning, exit strategies elevate broad short-term popular approval above all else, including operational effectiveness. For most military interventions, to publicize whatever exit strategy one does have is to provide a how-to manual for any local actor seeking to play the spoiler. Trumpeting advance plans for withdrawal may ensure that the American public can control the actions of its government. But it does so at the expense of hampering the government’s ability to respond flexibly to the situation that prompted the intervention in the first place.

The Long Haul

Depending on the interests involved and the relative merits of other policy options, it sometimes makes sense to deploy troops when there is no realistic prospect of bringing them home soon. Two of many potential current examples are the deployments in the Persian Gulf and the Sinai Peninsula. In the Gulf, the United States maintains a large military presence in order to contain Iraq, enforce the post-Gulf War sanctions, and preserve stability in a region of vital interest. This commitment is very expensive, unpleasant for all of the American forces, and fatal for some, like those killed in the 1996 bombing of an American barracks in Saudi Arabia. When Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has acted up, the United States has rushed still more troops to the region to make him back down, or struck at targets within his territory. Future Iraqi provocations might call for a truly serious military response, which would mean risking the lives of American aircrews and perhaps others.

Yet there is no exit strategy in the Gulf. Nobody knows how long the deployment will last. (A similar force has been in South Korea more than four decades.) Nevertheless, the deployment makes sense because the alternatives are worse. Diplomacy or economic sanctions by themselves, not backed up by credible military threats, will not keep Iraq contained. Trying to finish the job by eliminating Saddam seems attractive to some, but the United States has no idea how to do it at a reasonable cost. And eschewing responsibility for Gulf security by withdrawing U.S. forces would leave Saddam unconstrained and the weak, oil-rich states of the Gulf Cooperation Council vulnerable to their predatory neighbors.

Meanwhile, in the Sinai Peninsula, a few American troops help implement the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt as part of the Multinational Force and Observers. They have been there since 1982, participating in a traditional peacekeeping mission separating two former enemies and policing the border between them. And they will likely stay there for years to come. Yet most agree that this mission makes a great deal of sense. There are few risks to these soldiers save sunstroke, and the deployment does not cost much, especially when compared with the benefits it provides to an important region where no new headaches are needed.

The point of these examples is not that American troops should regularly be sent abroad and left there, but rather that U.S. interventions need to be considered on a case-by-case basis. In Bosnia and elsewhere, the main factors to consider are the importance of U.S. interests and the relative merits and costs of different ways of advancing them. Such analysis is not made easier by a slogan that preempts it by definition.

Reaching the End State

If the United States is not willing to stay for the long haul, a critical concern in intervention planning must be how to lock in success after a mission’s initial operations are finished, which is what many exit strategy devotees have in mind. This should not really be thought of as “exiting,” but as “transitioning.” The latter term focuses attention not simply on how to bring U.S. troops home but on how to move smoothly from the intervention’s final operations to what the military calls an “end state.” As those in Congress who wanted to arm the Bosnian Muslims correctly argued, some kind of order must be left behind to prevent an intervention’s accomplishments from fading away. Preparations for that order should be part of the original mission.

One reason transition planning has been neglected is that it is often devilishly complex, requiring a linkage between what Clausewitz called the “grammar” of military operations and the “logic” of political objectives. Another reason lies in the temperament of political leaders, who generally like to improvise and delay decisions until the last moment so as to retain maximum flexibility-ignoring the fact that postponing choices often generates more constraints. Still another reason for the neglect stems from policymakers’ frequent overemphasis on the immediate negative possibilities of an intervention rather than the benefits over the longer term.

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.

The transition phases of an intervention need not be simple or abrupt; often a gradual reduction of the outside presence works best, with each successive force charged with tackling a different type of problem until a local political structure is ready to stand on its own. Moreover, there is little reason for transition plans to be announced publicly or tied to a hard timetable. Publicity and rigidity could work against success by tipping one’s hand to opponents, allowing them to develop countermeasures.

Deadline Diplomacy

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-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.

The problem with this approach is that overzealous attempts to devise, publicize, and enforce limitations on American deployments can undermine an intervention’s effectiveness. Deadlines for withdrawal turn American troops into lame ducks. They do not prod local thugs to settle their differences, but rather encourage them to wait until the Americans go home. A publicized limitation strategy based on costs rather than time would have the opposite effect, prompting local opponents to rise up rather than lie low, while signaling to them just what damage they need to inflict to get the Americans to close up shop. The likely consequence of embracing Lake’s exit strategy doctrine, in short, would be the accumulation of several foreign commitments at a time, few of which turn out satisfactorily. The Clinton administration eventually realized this, so it decided not to face the consequences of abandoning Bosnia after a year, or even two and a half.

If Lake’s answer was flawed, his question-how to avoid overextension without retreating from the world entirely-was legitimate. Two other answers look more promising. The first is to develop strict limits not on interventions’ cost or duration, but rather on their objectives. This would mean keeping open the possibility of intervening widely in places such as Bosnia, Haiti, Iraq, and elsewhere, but only if the interventions were limited to pursuing goals that could be accomplished with relatively simple or tidy means, such as traditional peacekeeping, maritime blockades, or no-fly zones. The other alternative is to undertake very few interventions, yet commit to doing what it takes to see them through. This would mean choosing to accept real responsibility for bringing order to certain trouble spots while leaving others alone doing Haiti or Bosnia, say, but not both. Either of these courses is preferable to good-faith efforts because they avoid the domestic and international humiliation of backtracking.

Measuring Success and Failure

Still others think of exit strategies as plans for what to do when an intervention does not follow its expected course. Prompted by the experience in Somalia, recent discussion has focused almost exclusively on one scenario, dramatic failure, and one response, withdrawal. This is unfortunate because responsible contingency planning involves more than simply pointing out the exit. Initial failure, for example, can theoretically be met with either withdrawal or escalation, and there can be happy surprises as well as sad ones.

If policymakers should avoid public pronouncements on an intervention’s expected cost and duration, they should certainly specify their expectations on these and other matters privately, because that is the only way to establish yardsticks for assessing an intervention’s progress. Without such yardsticks, it is impossible to make intelligent decisions about whether to stay the course, withdraw, or escalate. If events follow the timetable originally conceived-as in, say, the 1994 Haiti mission-the intervention will flow logically from its original operations into its transition strategy, and there will be no need to resort to contingency plans. If something unexpected happens, on the other hand, officials may need to make a fundamental change of course. It is here that contingency planning becomes necessary.

An intervention’s original plans will include two kinds of assumptions. The first involves the nature of the problem and the feasibility of different solutions-what led to a crisis, for example, or which local political forces are too strong to exclude from a settlement. These assumptions undergird the intervention’s basic strategy, dictating what the objectives are and how they can be achieved. The second type of assumptions are narrower, encompassing how factors like the weather, logistics, and local conditions will affect the mission’s implementation. If these secondary assumptions are too pessimistic, success will come more quickly and smoothly than expected; if they are too optimistic, the intervention’s progress will be slower and bumpier than hoped. Either way, the general strategy of the intervention should not be changed, and commanders and officials on the ground should be given substantial leeway to respond to the situation as they see fit.

If the primary assumptions turn out to be wrong, on the other hand, then senior policymakers need to rethink the mission from the bottom up. In Vietnam, for example, policymakers should have recognized much sooner that aerial attacks and other demonstrations of American resolve would not dissuade the North Vietnamese from trying to take over the South. Instead of spending the mid-1960s gradually escalating the American war effort, officials should have forced themselves to choose between withdrawal or substantial escalation. In Somalia, American policymakers should have recognized long before the firefight in Mogadishu that the humanitarian crisis could not be resolved without addressing the country’s political anarchy, which would prove too much for a weak U.N. force to handle. Instead, they were forced out after a bloody confrontation sapped U.S. domestic support. Conversely, if-as in the Persian Gulf War-operations go far more smoothly than expected, policymakers should seriously consider whether it makes sense to strive for more than was originally planned.

Strategy, Politics, and Bosnia

In Bosnia, as in other cases, administration officials have trouble addressing these issues frankly in public. When they are raised, it is usually when the administration is trying to persuade or maneuver Congress into supporting a particular mission. Talks between the executive and legislative branches during the run-up to a major deployment often resemble a game of political chicken rather than a true exchange of ideas. Officials who believe in a military mission that Congress is leery of face wrenching questions, such as how to balance substantive and political concerns, how many compromises to accept, and whether to go forward with a flawed intervention rather than none at all. Still, in the end, the wisest course for an administration is to be as candid as possible-to plan thoroughly and realistically, lay out the true choices involved, and try to build a consensus based on the merits of the case. This is not what the Clinton administration has done on Bosnia.

Despite the heroic efforts of the negotiators at Dayton, the resulting agreement did not clear a path toward a stable end state. Rather than lower its objectives or eschew intervention, the administration decided to plow ahead and embraced a time limit on the Implementation Force (IFOR) deployment as the answer to its problems. This was either naive, disingenuous, or a gamble, and it has not worked.

The administration repeatedly claims that it has no intention of stationing American troops in Bosnia indefinitely. Yet it has not laid the groundwork for any other acceptable outcome. The Dayton Accord seemed to suggest that foreign troops would eventually hand off to a single competent local political entity, the government of a reconstituted Bosnia. But progress toward this objective has been slow, and does not yet justify a turnover. How about a clear division and stable balance of power among different local factions-in other words, a partition? This is what many so-called realists have been arguing for, and what many cynics thought Dayton was secretly about, with its deferral of certain idealistic goals, like pursuing war criminals and resettling refugees, and acceptance of land gained by ethnic cleansing and aggression. But Clinton administration officials have stated adamantly that they consider partition unacceptable because it would be unjust, set a terrible example for the region, and lead to future conflict. Hence the administration has been left with no options other than chaos or some kind of follow-on force. It has tried to toss the hot potato to the Europeans, but they have tossed it right back, saying that they will not stay without the Americans-“one out, all out.” So American troops took part in IFOR and the Stabilization Force (SFOR) and will likely be a part of whatever the next one is called too.

As for limitation, Bosnia was supposed to be the poster child for Lake’s exit strategy doctrine, the place where tough love would force the wayward locals to see the error of their ways or be left to their sorry fate. It was okay to send American troops there because they would absolutely, positively be home in a year. The president said, “If we leave after a year, and they decide they don’t like the benefits of peace and they’re going to start fighting again, that does not mean NATO failed. It means we gave them a chance to make their peace and they blew it.” Dayton negotiator Richard Holbrooke said, “We are not going to leave behind a force” after the one-year limit. “We think a year is sufficient. If a year doesn’t work, two, three, or five years won’t do either.” Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman John Shalikashvili said, “I cannot imagine circumstances changing in such a way that we would remain in Bosnia” beyond one year.

At the end of the year the troops did come home, but a new deployment was sent out to take their place, and the love did not look so tough. SFOR carried a time limit too: “It is now the intent for the mission to end in June of 1998,” said Shalikashvili, “and shortly thereafter for the troops to withdraw.” But observers were already skeptical; one prominent columnist suggested that the deployment be called “Operation I Really Mean It This Time.” Even Shalikashvili admitted to confusion, testifying that “everyone I’ve talked to has been unable to explain to me what it is that is going to happen during the period of time that would make the conditions at the end of [the SFOR deployment] worth taking the risk of bringing in a new force.”

If the time limits on the Bosnia intervention have been disregarded, other limits-such as what the American forces are charged with doing-have been much more closely observed. This is apparently because the administration believes that trying to achieve ambitious goals on the ground might cause casualties. It has, therefore, left itself open to the charge, as one observer acidly put it, that the Bosnia deployment resembles nothing more than the moon landings, with the principal objective being to send men far away and bring them back safely.

As for contingency planning, the administration has taken great pains to avoid any unpleasant surprises, and the American troops have actually been safer in Bosnia than they would have been conducting routine training exercises. The administration has skillfully taken advantage of this fact to disarm its critics and bolster the case for a longer deployment. But this may prove too clever by half because it accomplishes little of lasting value while leaving the mission vulnerable to a quick loss of support should anything go wrong.

It seems fair to assume that despite the hopes of some in the administration, re-creating a unified Bosnia is beyond U.S. capabilities in the near future. But a withdrawal of foreign forces under present circumstances would probably precipitate a tragic and humiliating renewal of fighting and damage NATO’s cohesion. And it seems unlikely that a purely European follow-on force will materialize as a deus ex machina. The real choice for the United States in Bosnia seems to be between remaining there indefinitely in pursuit of Dayton’s ambitious goals or moving toward a morally unpleasant but practical settlement that might permit most of the outside forces to leave before the millennium. The latter is looking increasingly attractive, but this is not because open-ended commitments are always inadvisable. It is because the Clinton administration has yet to make a strong case to Congress or the nation why its current half hearted pursuit of the goals of the Dayton Accord is worth such a commitment. The disparity between what the administration claims is at stake and what it is prepared to do is confusing. When Secretary Cohen was a senator, he put the issue squarely: “If you feel that the mission is worthy enough to make the commitment, then you shouldn’t put a time frame to it.” In Bosnia, as with other interventions, the focus should not be on developing exit strategies, but on articulating precise American interests and coming up with ways to advance them.