Small Wars Journal

“It’s Time to Stop Using the Term Exit Strategy”

Thu, 11/04/2021 - 2:10am

“It’s Time to Stop Using the Term Exit Strategy”


By Michael Forsyth


            In recent decades every time the United States’ political and military leaders discuss the use of force to deal with complex issues in the international security environment the conversation inevitably turns to the need for an exit strategy.[i]  Such discussions of exit strategies have had a deleterious effect on the development of strategy because the exit has become an end unto itself.  Thus, senior leaders have lost sight of the need to win when using force in order to secure political objectives.  The focus on exit strategy ignores the need to conduct messy consolidation operations to secure victory and ultimately translate this into political success.  Once military victory has secured the stated political objectives, then it is appropriate to discuss redeploying committed forces.  This essay offers that the focus on exit strategies is a factor that has led to strategic incompetence and therefore, it is time to discard the use of the term exit strategy as a necessary step to regain strategic competence.  This paper will discuss the origin of the term exit strategy, how it has affected policy and strategy formulation, and offer suggestions for regaining strategic competence.

            Exit strategy is a term that originated in the business world and migrated to the language of national security in the 1990s.[ii]  Americans have always had a proclivity to demand that leaders “bring the boys home,” which was a recurring refrain following all major wars such as the Civil War, World War I, and World War II.[iii]  The current focus on exit strategy finds its origin in the era of limited wars.  Following World War II, the US sent troops to fight in Korea and Vietnam, generally serving one-year tours of duty to limit the length of combat service.  This is a marked contrast to the situation in World War II in which troops served for the duration of the conflict with most of this time spent deployed in the combat zone.  The frustrating results of Korea and Vietnam soured Americans on the use of force far from home for perceived dubious policy objectives.  In the 1980s, then-secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger articulated a doctrine for the use of force by the US.[iv]  It stated that the US “should not commit forces to combat overseas unless . . . deemed vital to our national interest.”  Additionally, the decision to send forces should be done with “the clear intention of winning.”  Third, the commitment of forces “should have clearly defined political and military objectives.”  Next, the objectives and disposition of forces requires “continuous reassessment and adjustment if necessary.”  Fifth, in committing US forces “there must be some reasonable assurance that we will have the support of the American people.”  Finally, consider any “commitment of US forces to combat as a last resort.”[v]  This doctrine along with the later Powell Doctrine[vi] strongly influenced consideration of the use of force for a decade.  Thus, the development of policy and strategy focused on the primacy of the political and military objectives and how the use of force could secure these objectives.

            In the 1990s a subtle change to these doctrines found its way into the 1995 national security strategy.  This strategy that carried the title “A National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement” incorporated some of the tenets of the Weinberger Doctrine with the exception of the admonitions that use of force should defend vital interests and be a last resort.  The strategy added an assessment of human and financial costs and, crucially, the need to have an exit strategy.[vii]  Since the strategy dropped the vital interest provision from Weinberger it made it far easier to decide to use force for what the national security strategy called a “third category [that] involves primarily humanitarian interests.”[viii]  This lowered the threshold for deploying forces and resulted in more than doubling of the operational tempo of US military personnel in the 1990s versus that of the period between 1945 and 1989.[ix]  To sustain such an operational tempo required available forces and the support of the American people.  Thus, ensuring a rapid exit would serve to replenish needed forces while sustaining the resolve of the American populace.  Throughout the 1990s US forces deployed to the Persian Gulf, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo while maintaining long-term commitments in Germany and Korea.

            The requirement to have an exit strategy in order to use force had a series of negative effects.  First, the focus on having an exit strategy demonstrates to all observers, most importantly potential adversaries, that the US lacks resolve and a commitment to winning.  Instead, such a focus makes it appear that the use of force is done with reluctance and a desire to leave as quickly as possible rather than finishing a messy task.[x]  Second, the requirement for an exit strategy calls into question American credibility.[xi]  In other words, other states may not trust the US to follow through on a commitment, or when the task becomes difficult, those states may believe that Americans will just leave when the situation becomes onerous.  Third, the requirement to have an exit strategy inhibits the ability to have flexibility and the ability to adjust to a changing situation.[xii]  Finally, the exit strategy requirement makes leaving an end unto itself, thus removing focus from strategy development for the intervention.  With so much emphasis placed upon leaving quickly, the forces cannot adapt when the situation changes leading to the inability to secure the political objectives.  Additionally, focusing on exit strategies gives the appearance of lack of resolve causing the loss of credibility noted above while also affecting strategic competence in a negative manner.  The reason for this is that emphasis on exit strategy obscures the need for strategy to link to policy.  Strategy provides the direction needed to secure the political objectives stated in policy.  This link between the two is broken when exit strategies intervene with timelines for withdrawal from a dynamic situation.[xiii]   Therefore, the primary concern is for making an exit from the situation rather than adjusting to the situation to secure the political objectives.

            There is much writing about strategy in the context of national security.  Strategy at its heart is “the calculation of objectives, concepts, and resources within acceptable bounds of risk to create more favorable outcomes.”  Further, strategy is the art and science of developing and using the political, economic, social-psychological, and military powers of the state in accordance with policy guidance to create effects that protect or advance national interests.”[xiv]  This means that strategy provides the direction to “create more favorable outcomes” and enable the state to secure political objectives that protect or serve the national interests.  When leaders require an exit strategy any time they are considering the use of force it lessens the probability that the state can protect its interests and create desired outcomes.  The reason is that the potential adversary can simply ‘wait out’ any intervention, thus stifling the ability of the US to secure political objectives meant to create a more favorable environment.

            The exit strategy requirement also makes the use of force less flexible and adaptable as noted earlier.  This is because timelines imposed by an exit strategy prevent leaders from adjusting operations to the situation that confronts them.  As Gideon Rose points out, such limitations and inability to adapt turns “American troops into lame ducks.”[xv]  Carl von Clausewitz admonished political and military leaders that “[T]he first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgement that the commander and statesmen have to make is to establish . . . the kind of war on which they are embarking: neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into something alien to its nature.”[xvi]  In other words, understand the environment and war presented, and fight it, instead of fighting the war you want.  Focus on an exit strategy attempts to create an environment alien to an actual situation and this limits flexibility and adaptability.  As Harry Yarger states “strategy is subordinate to the environment” and therefore this requires that strategy be “adaptable and flexible emphasizing strategic purpose.”[xvii]  Thus, emphasis on exit strategy diverts from strategic purpose limiting needed flexibility to adapt to a changing environment.[xviii]  This tends to increase the difficulty of securing political objectives through the use of force.  As a result, exit strategy – which is no strategy at all – becomes the objective and has primacy rather than the objectives articulated in policy, which illustrates the decline in strategic competence.

            The most insidious effect of the emphasis on the requirement to have an exit strategy is that the US has forgotten how to win wars.  “US and Western political and military leaders and intellectuals have forgotten that victory matters when one goes to war,” notes Donald Stoker.  The reason for this is that these leaders have forgotten that the use of force is a political act to secure political objectives and not just nebulous action on the battlefield.  Success on the field should link directly to the political objective providing leverage to “deliver political victory.”[xix]  Another writer notes that the inability to win stems from an emphasis on protecting the force in order to retain support of the populace.[xx]  So, establishing an exit strategy ensures the preservation of the force, but makes it more difficult to translate battlefield success into political victory since rapidly exiting prevents the consolidation of gains.  The exit strategy then, contributes to the intellectual amnesia of political and military leaders in terms of doing what is required to win.  This leads to the question, what must leaders do to regain the ability to win when using force and secure political objectives?

            The first thing we must do is discard using the term exit strategy because it “causes more harm than good.”  One reason is that it erodes needed support from partners and allies while at the same time hardening the resistance of potential adversaries.[xxi]  Thus, the very use of the term elevates the risk to any mission undertaken.  Second, the US should discard any requirement to have an exit strategy as part of the initial planning processes considering the use of force.  This is not to say that planners should not plan for exiting a theater.  However, such planning should only occur after military and political objectives are secure.[xxii]  In other words, achieving success in protecting the national interests constitutes the exit strategy.  Once success is achieved through the use of force, it is then appropriate for planners to develop concepts and options for redeployment of forces.  Victory provides the pathway to the exit.  Finally, US leaders must reconnect strategy to policy.  Exit strategies disconnect policy from strategy and exist in a “policy-free environment.”  As Hew Strachan notes, though “strategy and policy are indeed distinct in theory, strategy in practice rests on a dialogue with policy.”[xxiii]  Strategy provides the direction for securing policy, and the exit is simply a planning exercise that occurs once the military has secured the military and political objectives through the use of force.

            The requirement to have an exit strategy in every instance of considering the use of force has had a negative effect on strategic competence in the United States.  The emphasis on this imperative has overwhelmed strategy and became the end instead of a distinct event that occurs after successful use of force.  One author admonishes that rather than focusing on the exit strategy, the US should “focus on the intervention.”[xxiv]  This will ensure that policy has primacy because strategy can then focus on securing the political objectives rather than finding the exit.  The best way to terminate a conflict and exit the theater of combat operations is to win on the battlefield, consolidate the gains, and secure the military and political objectives.  At this point, planning for redeployment to exit the theater is appropriate.  Therefore, it is time to discard the term and requirement to have an exit strategy when considering the use of force.  This will elevate policy to its proper place while focusing strategy on providing the “blueprint”[xxv] to secure the political objectives articulated by the policy.  Continuing to discuss exit strategy when considering the use of force at the expense of strategy will lead to future difficulties with winning wars and this is unacceptable in a complex and ever-changing international security environment.


[i] The following articles supply a representative example of this phenomenon starting in the 1990s to the present.  Gideon Rose, “The Exit Strategy Delusion,” Foreign Affairs (January-February 1998), 56-67; Thom Shanker, “Democrats Call Iraq ‘War with No Exit Strategy’,” New York Times (April 8, 2008); Kilic Bugra Kanat, “The US Exit Strategy from Iraq and Syria,” Foundation for Political, Economic, and Social Research, (Washington, DC: SETA, January 2, 2019).  Accessed September 14, 2021 at; Thom O’Conner and Meredith Wolf Schizer, “Constant Desire for an Exit Strategy Paradoxically Prolonged Intervention in Afghanistan says Author,” Newsweek (September 1, 2021).  Accessed September 14, 2021 at

[ii] Rose, “The Exit Strategy Delusion,” 57 and Fen Olser Hampson and Tod Lindberg, “’No Exit’ Strategy,” Policy Review (December 2012 – January 2013).  Accessed September 15, 2021 at

[iii] Garry L. Thompson, “Army Downsizing Following World War I, World War II, Vietnam, and a Comparison to Recent Army Downsizing,” Unpublished Master’s Thesis, (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: Command and General Staff College, 2002), 12-14 and 28-30.

[iv] Hampson and Lindberg, “’No Exit’ Strategy.”

[v] Caspar Weinberger, Fighting for Peace: Seven Critical Years in the Pentagon, (New York: Warner Books, 1990), 441-442.

[vi] Colin Powell and Joseph E. Persico, My American Journey, (New York: Ballatine Publishing Group, 1996), 207-208 and Colin Powell, “U.S. Forces Challenges Ahead,” Foreign Affairs (Winter 1992-1993), 38.

[vii] Office of the President of the United States, A National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement, (Washington, DC: The White House, 1995), 13.

[viii] Ibid., 12.

[ix] Bart Brasher, Implosion: Downsizing the U.S. Military, 1987-2015, (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2000), 137 and Michael Mandelbaum, Mission Failure: America and the World, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 6-7.

[x] Rose, “The Exit Strategy Delusion,” 61.

[xi] Hampson and Lindberg, “’No Exit’ Strategy.”

[xii] Rose, “The Exit Strategy Delusion,” 59.

[xiii] Ibid., 62-63 and 67.

[xiv] Harry R. Yarger, Strategic Theory in the 21st Century: The Little Book on Big Strategy, (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2006), 1.

[xv] Rose, “The Exit Strategy Delusion,” 62.

[xvi] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Michael Howard and Peter Paret, editors and translators, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 88.

[xvii] Yarger, The Little Book on Big Strategy, 7 and 10.

[xviii] David Kampf, “When are Exit Strategies Viable?” War on the Rocks, (October 14, 2019).  Accessed 15 September 2021 at

[xix] Donald Stoker, Why America Loses Wars: Limited War and U.S. Strategy from the Korean War to the Present, (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 176.

[xx] Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World, (New York: Knopf, 2007), 272-273 and 380-381.

[xxi] Kampf, “When Are Exit Strategies Viable?”

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Hew Strachan, The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective, (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 18-19.

[xxiv] Kampf, “When are Exit Strategies Viable?”

[xxv] Yarger, The Little Book on Big Strategy, 5.

Categories: strategy

About the Author(s)

Michael J. Forsyth is a retired U.S. Army field artillery colonel and currently an assistant professor in the Department of Joint, Interagency, and Multinational Operations at the Command and General Staff College.  He commanded at every level through brigade and served as chief of staff of Alaskan Command and Alaska NORAD Region.  He is a veteran of Operation DESERT STORM and served three tours in Afghanistan. He is a PhD candidate at the Royal Military College of Canada completing his doctoral dissertation.