Paul Kennedy: Talk of an Exit Strategy Is a Mistake

Roundup: Historians' Take

Paul Kennedy, writing in the Guardian (Nov. 26, 2003):

It is difficult for conservatives here in the US not to concede that things have failed to go according to plan in Iraq, but only a few admit that things are a mess. Meanwhile, among the critics of the Bush administration's "forward school" - ranging from retired army generals through Middle East experts to anti-war radicals - there seems little satisfaction at having been proved correct in their forecasts that it would be harder to get out of Iraq than to kick one's way in. The situation in Iraq and, perhaps increasingly in Afghanistan, is too serious for schadenfreude. So, as George Bush and Tony Blair conferred last week, it was hardly surprising that the planned ceremonies were overshadowed not just by the mobs of protesters but also by the urgency of the private discussions about what to do next.

The Bush-Blair confab about strategy brought to mind that old tale about the two English gentlemen who had set forth vigorously one morning across the Irish countryside. By mid-afternoon they realised that their maps were faulty and they were well and truly lost. Spotting a peasant at work in his field, they called out: "I say, old chap, how do we get back to Dublin?" The peasant scratched his head thoughtfully and then replied, "Well, if I were you, sirs, I wouldn't start from here." No doubt the man had good grounds for offering that opinion, but the problem for the two walkers was precisely that they had to start from where they were at the time. And so do the Bush and Blair governments with regard to Iraq.

As they consider the various options of getting from here to there, they are naturally bombarded with all sorts of ideas from the pundits, with calls from congressmen and MPs for solutions, with urgings from allies, and, above all, with reports from the field, usually conflicting in nature. Amid all the slogans and vogue-words tossed around in this cacophony, one is beginning to drown out the rest: the term is "exit strategy" (as in, how to find one).

The sudden return of Paul Bremer, the US-led coalition's chief administrator of Iraq, to Washington, and the announcement of some form of handover to some form of Iraqi authority by June, has intensified the impression that the Bush team, especially, are looking for a way out. It's going to be difficult, politically, to get through the Christmas season (yellow ribbons on trees, families encountering their first Christmas without their father or son, images of soldiers still on patrol in Baghdad on Christmas night); but it may be even more difficult if the US electoral campaign unfolds with the two governments still, metaphorically, a long way from Dublin.

One wishes that the term "exit strategy" was not bandied about at all. Although the conservatives deny the comparison, it has deep echoes of Vietnam. Exit strategies from a conflict, such as Napoleon's retreat from Moscow or the British army heading towards Dunkirk, are often desperate, hand-to-mouth affairs, and full of Clausewitzian frictions. They smell of defeat, and defeatism. Most importantly, the open discussion by one side of various ways of making an exit gives a tremendous morale and propaganda boost to the opposition - all they have to do now is to hang on until the terminus date itself, and sharpen their knives. This is particularly true in the present situation, because there is an image abroad, fuelled by memories of Vietnam, Mogadishu and the first Iraq war, that Americans can't stand long and costly wars overseas.

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