Entry from November 30, 2009

According to today’s New York Times “senior administration officials” — that is, the administration’s designated leakers — are saying that, “President Obama plans to lay out a time frame for winding down the American involvement in the war in Afghanistan when he announces his decision this week to send more forces.” In case it sounds to you the tiniest bit confusing to announce “more forces” and “winding down” simultaneously, that just shows you don’t know very much about the higher strategic thinking. For what is being advertised here is the now-famous “exit strategy,” an idea which dates back to the Vietnam era and was popularized by General Colin Powell at the time of the first Gulf War as part of what has since been called “The Powell Doctrine.” The “exit strategy” was, along with “broad international support,” one of two additions the General made to the earlier “Weinberger Doctrine” which laid down a series of stringent conditions for the deployment of American forces abroad.

The need for an exit strategy was quite a new thing in the annals of war. The exit strategy of Churchill and Roosevelt in World War II was to win it. Once the enemy surrenders, the exiting part pretty much takes care of itself. This also works from the other end. If victory looks like taking too much trouble and effort, surrender is the surest and most reliable sort of exit strategy, though its side effects are not always so desirable. General Douglas MacArthur took this old-fashioned view of war when he was commanding the United Nations’ forces in Korea in 1951. “In war, there is no substitute for victory,” he was famous for saying. President Harry Truman sacked him for it, and so invented the need for exit strategies short of victory.

Unfortunately, President Truman had neglected to provide himself with an exit strategy of his own. That part of the story is largely forgotten now that the story of the dismissal of MacArthur is universally celebrated as a re-assertion of civilian authority over military commanders who have become too big for their britches. But Harry Truman’s lack of an exit strategy was bequeathed to Lyndon Johnson and later Richard Nixon in Vietnam, with consequences so disastrous as to have inspired the ex-Vietnam War officer General Powell — as he was later to become — to invent the Powell Doctrine twenty years and more later. The trouble with that Doctrine, now itself nearly 20 years old, was that its author never provided an example of an effective exit strategy that might have guided those, including himself, who planned the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq during the George W. Bush administration.

In other words, the idea of an “exit strategy” sounded good as part of a plan to avoid two, three, many Vietnams, but it turned out that no one quite knew what one was. It seemed to rule out victory ex hypothesi, but it never managed to come up with that substitute for victory which General MacArthur long ago warned did not exist. Could it be that he was right all along? Surely not! Surely President Obama must have followed the recommendation of his supporter and the doctrine’s inventor, General Powell, and taken so much time over his decision about increasing troop strength in Afghanistan because, as the Times intimates, it has taken him this long to figure out once and for all what that hitherto chimerical beast of an “exit strategy” actually is.

I don’t know about you, but I can hardly wait until tomorrow evening’s speech from West Point — where General MacArthur was once commandant and where he gave his most famous speech about “Duty, Honor, Country” — to have this mystery cleared up. According to Jake Tapper, President Bush’s first Secretary of State told his successor: “Mr. President, don”t get pushed by the left to do nothing; don’t get pushed by the right to do everything. You take your time and you figure it out.” So I guess we know that it will be — no big surprises here — a moderate solution. The only hint we get from the Times’s leakers is that the President intends “to convey how he intends to turn the fight over to the Kabul government.” If you find that re-assuring, you may have forgotten that it was precisely this exit strategy — a middle course of escalation between the then-famous “doves” and “hawks” and the “Vietnamization” of the war — that Presidents Johnson and Nixon chose back in the day. But I’m sure it will work this time. Aren’t you?

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