Every war must end, but few end well. Fred Charles Iklé has written a slim but essential book on this subject. Fred’s bottom line: government leaders that make momentous decisions to go to war, or decisions that could lead to war, are obliged to have military and diplomatic strategies to end hostilities on favorable terms.

In the preface to the first revised edition to Every War Must End (1971), Fred lists three “musts” for US decision makers:

American forces must not be committed to combat without a clear military strategy, whether for defeating the enemy of for expelling the aggressor’s forces and restoring the peace.

 

A second and corollary lesson is that American forces should not be sent into combat merely for the purpose of demonstrating America’s resolve and commitment. Such a ‘demonstration strategy’ is no substitute for a clear military strategy to defeat the enemy’s forces. It will not induce a determined adversary to withdraw or to cease his aggression…

 

A third lesson tells us that the United States should not enter a war based on a strategy of inflicting ‘punishment’ on the enemy by bombing or shelling targets whose destruction will not serve to defeat the enemy’s forces militarily.

Fred is no longer with us to offer his views on bombing Iran’s nuclear sites, controlling Syria’s air space, dealing with the Assad regime’s chemical weapons, or how best to respond to Kim Jong-un and his coterie of military advisors. The particulars in each case are different. One relates to proliferation prevention, the second focuses on the use of force on humanitarian grounds, and the third deals with the consequences of proliferation.

Caution is a tactic, not a strategy. Caution can either help avoid dangerous, precipitous, and costly moves, or it can make a bad situation worse. The most successful strategies to date in dealing with the consequences of proliferation have been deterrence and containment, not efforts to achieve regime change. Proliferation prevention by means of bombing runs can provide short-term gains, followed by long-term costs. Combat air patrols to protect civilians from regimes that engage in mass murder can help turn the tide, but not affect the character of governance once the regime falls.

None of the decisions relating to Iran, Syria, and North Korea are slam dunks. What these cases have in common is the need to avoid the fallacy of the last move, and to think instead about how US military action, once undertaken, would likely play out over time.

Since 1945, the United States has generally failed to end wars victoriously and decisively — with the exception of the first Gulf war against Saddam Hussein and small-scale military operations like Grenada. Exit strategies have sometimes been embarrassing affairs in search of decent intervals. The worst of the lot was Vietnam. The image of a small helicopter air-lifting a few fortunate exit-seekers from a long line atop a building in Saigon is etched on my brain. It remains a haunting coda for a war waged to demonstrate resolve and inflict punishment.

Fred’s lessons were embraced by the George H.W. Bush administration in the first Gulf war, and then forgotten by the George W. Bush administration in Afghanistan and in a second go-round with Saddam Hussein. Bush 43’s “War on Terror” was a rallying cry, not a strategy. It violated all of Fred’s dicta by being open-ended, geographically unbounded, and at odds with a declaration of mission accomplished.

President Barack Obama wisely re-framed this contest as the disruption and defeat of the core al-Qaeda leadership — achievable war aims. Then he muddled US objectives by extending the conflict to include al-Qaeda’s “affiliates” and “associates.” Drone strikes have become one yardstick to measure the extent to which the Obama administration has strayed from Fred’s criteria.

The US exit strategy in Iraq was incomparably better than in Vietnam, but the price of regime change has been very steep, and Iraq’s future is uncertain, at best. The outcome in Afghanistan is yet to be determined, but may well look depressingly familiar. After expressing confident expectations about fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, hawkish US analysts and politicians owe their fellow citizens something more than new military action plans. For a start, they might explain how their new proposals for the use of force meet Fred’s criteria. Humanitarian interventionists who wish to place US forces in harm’s way are similarly obliged to clarify aims and projected costs.

Has the nature of war changed so much as to make Fred Iklé’s criteria irrelevant?