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No Exit

Author: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
December 5, 2009


When it comes to war, Americans are fond of quoting military thinkers like Sun Tzu and Clausewitz. But the strategist with the most to say about the current U.S. foreign-policy predicament may be Jean-Paul Sartre.

Sartre's play No Exit features characters who cannot escape from one another. "Hell is other people," one says. Why is this relevant? Because in both Iraq and Afghanistan, America finds itself involved (some might say trapped) in difficult situations (some might describe them as hell) where its ability to exit successfully depends largely on its local partners. The United States is counting on Iraqis and Afghans to do more so that Americans can do less. But in neither country is it obvious, or even likely, that this will turn out to be the case.

In Iraq, America has committed itself to a hard exit. The U.S. and Iraqi governments have signed a pact under which all U.S. soldiers (still numbering some 120,000) are to leave Iraq by the end of 2011. In his West Point speech, President Obama committed to a "soft" exit from Afghanistan, pledging to begin reducing U.S. forces there by the summer of 2011. Left unsaid is how quickly the number of U.S. troops will come down, how many will remain, and for how long. Most important, there is no mention of what will happen if "conditions on the ground" remain poor or worsen--i.e., if it turns out that the Afghan Army and police aren't ready to take over.

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