The Trouble With Exit Strategies

Reagan-era Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger famously argued that troops should never be sent abroad without a clear strategy for bringing them home. But how achievable are exit strategies?

Former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger famously created the “Weinberger Doctrine”–a set of tests that had to be met before U.S. troops could be sent into harm’s way.  These requirements were formulated largely to avoid another Vietnam-type “quagmire” (where the U.S. got bogged down in a costly and unpopular war), so they included the following restrictions:

(1) Only commit troops abroad when it is in our vital national interests

(2) Use overwhelming force, with the clear intention to win

(3) Have clearly defined political and military objectives

(4) Obtain support from the American people and Congress

(5) The commitment of U.S. forces to combat should be a last resort

A few years later, Colin Powell (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and later Secretary of State) articulated a very similar doctrine that reiterated Weinberger’s concerns and also added broad international support and a clear exit strategy (implied by Weinberger’s point #3).

Perhaps the trickiest part of implementing the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine is the exit strategy/achievable goals requirement.   Some objectives, like removing a regime from power, are eminently achievable by the sort of brute military force the U.S. excels at.  But rarely do the political/military goals end there–usually policymakers are concerned about the type of regime that comes after (ensuring that it is relatively stable and legitimate and does not present a threat to American interests).  And if your goal is essentially to create a legitimate pro-Western regime from scratch (as in Iraq and Afghanistan) and your exit strategy is to pull troops out only when that has been achieved, then you will likely be faced with a dilemma: either (1) keep troops in place for many years in a potentially quite hostile environment or (2) pull troops out before the goals have been fully achieved.  Neither option is particularly attractive; in the case of the Iraq occupation Republicans have generally favored #1 and Democrats #2, and the debate has been strident.  If Iraq continues to “unravel” after America’s exit, expect Republicans to target Obama’s decision not to leave a residual force in Iraq during the 2012 presidential campaign.

But would leaving troops in Iraq indefinitely be a better option?  Does the presence of U.S. forces create a secure environment for political compromise or only enable leaders to avoid stepping up and taking responsibility for their own country?  Which exit strategy is less costly?

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