On a recent edition of Hardball with Chris Matthews, at the U.S. Air Force Academy, a cadet asked what the U.S. "exit strategy" might be in the event of a war with Iraq. The guests, all retired generals, answered his question, differing from one another only in degree, not in kind. None challenged whether the question was legitimate in the first place.
The idea of an "exit strategy" has a strange pedigree. It began with the U.S. experience in the Vietnam War. Under the tutelage of Robert McNamara, the Johnson administration abandoned classical military strategy for a more "scientific" approach to the conduct of war through graduated escalation. Without a strong political commitment to winning, the U.S. eventually negotiated an inglorious end to its part in the conflict. The war ended when the North Vietnamese conquered the South.
The Reagan administration tried getting past the "Vietnam syndrome" by announcing a new doctrine. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger proposed six criteria for determining whether — and how — the U.S. should commit U.S. military forces abroad. Dubbed the Weinberger Doctrine, the six criteria stipulated that:
1) The U.S. should not commit forces to combat overseas unless the particular engagement or occasion is deemed vital to its national interest or that of its allies;
2) If the U.S. decides it is necessary to put combat troops into a given situation, it should do so wholeheartedly with the clear intention of winning;
3) If the U.S. does decide to commit forces to combat overseas, it should have clearly defined political and military objectives;
4) The relationship between U.S. objectives and the forces committed should be continually reassessed and adjusted if necessary;
5) Before the U.S. commits combat forces abroad, there must be some reasonable assurance that it will have the support of the American people and their elected representatives in Congress;
6) The commitment of U.S. forces to combat should be a last resort.
National security and war-making are part of the statesman's art, of course, and can never be bound by hard and fast rules. Nevertheless, it can be useful for the statesman to promulgate broad, sensible guidelines, such as the Weinberger Doctrine, among his military and civilian subordinates.
Shortly after the Clinton administration's 1993 military fiasco in Somalia, these criteria were corrupted to fit a different agenda. In a supposed reform of United Nations-sponsored operations, the administration issued Presidential Policy Directive 25, which tried to adapt Weinberger's guidelines to "peace operations." Rather than securing our "vital interests" through "clearly defined political and military objectives," Clinton's directive formulated the idea of an "endpoint for U.S. participation." Thus, the term "exit strategy." Clinton, who protested the Vietnam War in his youth, thereby returned us to the Vietnam syndrome that Reagan sought to overcome.
Asking about our exit strategy became commonplace during the Clinton administration because of its profligate use of U.S. military power for conducting peace operations. It was also a good question to ask as virtually none of the peace operations since the end of World War II have ever ceased. But ending participation in an U.N.-led operation is not a strategy, exit or otherwise.
Strategy is the art of marrying military means to political goals, and vice versa. Thus, strategy is irrelevant to either beginning or ending participation in peace operations. The political goals of peace operations are ambiguous by nature. Typically, peace operations only delay resolution of the underlying problem, producing what has been called a peacekeeping narcosis. Since the two sides are not compelled to settle their differences, the conflict only simmers.
Strategy and war, however, work hand in glove. Since war is never fought simply for the fun of fighting, the political goals are crucial for gauging the best possible means for accomplishing them. The potential conflict with Iraq is no peace operation.
Since 9/11, the United States has begun fighting back against terrorism. In particular, the U.S. is making war against terrorist organizations and their state supporters. Saddam's Iraq harbors terrorists and diligently develops weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons. In addition to violating numerous international laws and treaties, it has also aggressively attacked its immediate neighbors, used chemical weapons on its own citizens, and attacked Israel.
The Bush administration has decided that the U.S. has had enough of a hostile and aggressive Iraq. There can be no doubt that when Iraq gets nuclear weapons, it will find a way to use them. The only political objective worthy of a military strategy towards Iraq is to remove Saddam's regime from power.
The simple answer to the cadet's question about exit strategy should have been "to achieve victory." Unfortunately, it seems that another legacy of the Clinton years is that our military has forgotten there is no substitute for it.