Syria and The Myth of the Exit Strategy

In a recent article for War on the Rocks, Peter Munson expanded on a debate I’d had with him on Twitter over intervention in Syria. WOTR generously offered me space to respond.

The overall issue is that I wonder exactly what Munson and others really mean when they ask about “outcomes” or even the dreaded “exit strategies,” in which every proposal for intervention is met with the phrase: Tell me how this ends.

Here’s what I think it all means. When someone says “tell me how it ends,” it’s another way of saying: “I just don’t happen to like this particular case for intervention,” for whatever reason.

I believe that those opposed to U.S. intervention use the insistence on an “exit strategy” as a rhetorical device and a trap: they oppose action in an impending disaster as “too early” — that is, you’re too far from a resolution and can’t see the end — and then to oppose action in an actual disaster as “too late,” because the situation is too far gone and once again, there is no end in sight.

This leads to what I call the “Goldilocks complaint,” in which opponents of intervention can never find the porridge that’s “just right” for them:

If presented with a limited strike to degrade the regime’s abilities in retaliation for WMD use, we get this: “You’re wasting lives on meaningless actions that won’t matter! You have to go big if you’re going to take those risks!”

But if told “Okay, let’s go big and really hurt the enemy, and maybe even destroy the regime,” we get the other answer: “You’re crazy! You’re trying to start a major war! You’re risking lives in a massive quagmire!” And on and on. It’s a predictable cycle, in which every major action is too hot, any smaller actions are too cold. And once again, what’s really being said is:

“I just don’t want to do this.”

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