A Timetable is not an Exit Strategy
By John D. Turner
29 Nov 2005

It’s kind of like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Each morning, President Bush awakens, and is faced with the same problem. How best to end the war in Iraq. And despite his best efforts, each morning he wakes up with the same nagging question, and no solution in sight. So we plod on and on, from day to day, with no exit strategy in sight.

Thank goodness for the Democrats in the U.S. Congress! If not for them, we would never have an exit strategy! They are good at things like that. Remember what a good job they did with the exit strategy for Bosnia?

Oh wait. We are still in Bosnia, aren’t we? See there, George Bush messed up that one too!

What we need is a timetable! How can we fight a war without a timetable? How will we know if we are done or not without a timetable?

Look at Vietnam. If we had had a timetable there, then things would have been different. But we didn’t, and look what happened. The war dragged out for 10 years. Nobody knew when to quit!

World War Two was a different story. There we had a timetable. Four years and out. And we beat it by almost four months. Of course, the Democrats were in charge then. They know how to get things done!

Wait, we didn’t have a timetable during WWII? Are you sure? Well, how about the Civil War then surely we – no timetable there either? How about the War of 1812? The Revolutionary War?

The fact of the matter is that wars are not fought using a timetable as an exit strategy. One of the first “rules of war” is that no plan survives contact with the enemy. It’s real life, not a Hollywood script. The exit strategy is not “we will leave on May first, but rather “we will leave when the objectives have been met”. And even that is subject to revision, as sometimes objectives change.

The original objective in Somalia, under President George H. W. Bush, was to feed starving people. The objective under President Clinton changed to capturing certain warlords he didn’t like. The exit strategy became “leave to avoid unfavorable publicity to the administration” when said warlords took umbrage at our efforts, shot up our troops, and dragged them through the streets on world television.

The objective in Iraq was to take out Saddam, ending the threat that he would supply terrorists with support (including WMD) that they could use against us, and in its place, set up a representative democracy in an attempt to stabilize the region. The exit strategy is to leave once the job is finished; i.e., once a stable democracy is established. The current insurgency has complicated the picture, as now it is also necessary to ensure that the government can defend itself once we pull out. This has delayed our departure. (See “no plan survives contact with the enemy”).

“Well, but we took a poll, and the Iraqis said they don’t want us there.”

I’m sure that is true. I can’t imagine they would want us there, forever. I bet if you took a poll in Germany or Japan, and other places we have bases, people would say they don’t want us there either. Most people resent having foreign armies in their country, especially when they weren’t invited in to start with. France welcomed us as liberators during WW I and WW II. They kicked us out in the 60’s, and the French government’s attitude towards America today is hardly complementary. They will take our tourist dollars, but they don’t particularly like us. Did anyone ask the Iraqis if they would prefer us to leave today, or to wait until they had a prayer of defending themselves against al’Quaida and the Saddam loyalists. Did anyone ask them if they would prefer to have Saddam back? They can – he’s still alive.

The whole national “debate” at this point sounds a bit like grade-schoolers squabbling over a playground slight. Well, the President lied. There weren’t any WMDs after all. The Iraqis don’t love us. People died!

Folks, it doesn’t matter why we went there. We are there. It’s done. We now have an obligation to our troops to support them and finish the effort. And we also have an obligation to the Iraqi people to do the same. We cannot negate those obligations just because we now may think it was a bad idea.

You’re mad at George Bush? Fine. Impeach him. Run him out of office on a rail. Vote Democrat or Green or Socialist next time around. But pulling out of Iraq before we have trained sufficient Iraqis to defend themselves is just asking for a bloodbath to ensue once we are gone.

Why not take a poll of the troops who are in Iraq? If you ask them the same question, do you want to be there, you will probably get pretty much the same answer. Nobody wants to be there. Pretty much everyone would rather be somewhere else. But that isn’t the issue. And that is basically what is wrong with polls and polling data. They are too simplistic, and too dependent on how the questions are worded, who is asking the questions, and what the alternative answers to the questions are.

Ask the troops if they think they should pull out now, before the job is done. Ask them “essay” questions instead of “multiple choice”. Ask the Iraqis the same. Ask the troops who have volunteered for multiple tours, why they have done so. Ask the Iraqis who they think are responsible for the bombings that have been targeting civilians for the past several months. Ask them if they think these bombings would cease if American troops left. Ask them what they think would happen if American troops left today.

Bring our boys home. Yeah, it sounds good. But what would be the ramifications? Nothing good, that’s for sure. Unless you are a liberal Democrat or a terrorist.

So what is our exit strategy now? I would say it has to be three-fold. 1) A functioning Iraqi government, elected by their own people, who can perform the job of governing the country. 2) A trained Iraqi military and police force that can restore order and protect the borders from foreign intrusion. 3) Agreement by the Iraqi government that our help is no longer needed, and we can go home.

This last point will probably be a phased withdrawal, not set up by some arbitrary timetable, but rather by what is actually going on, particularly the attainment of step 2 above. There may be spikes and dips in this withdrawal, as we mutually respond to actual events, but the trend will be for less troops over time, culminating in an eventual total withdrawal.

Step 3 is very important. We can’t just cut and run. Since we took out their government and their military, we have a moral obligation to the Iraqi people to help them set up a new, representative government and train forces to help them defend themselves. It is in our best interest to do so in any event. If we fail to do so, it will come back to haunt us in the long run.

You will note that none of this lends itself to a “timetable” solution. Timetables work for trains and airlines (although not always well even for these). They do not work so well when you have numerous outside forces acting on your timetable over which you have little or no control. As a political tool, it may be useful (for different reasons for different sides), but as a practical matter, it isn’t worth the paper it is printed on.

By the way, while we are on the topic of “timetables” for getting out of wars, what exactly is the timetable for ending the War on Poverty? How about the War on Crime? The War on Drugs?