Why “Win and Go Home” Doesn’t Work

President Trump took to Twitter (obligatory eye roll) to threaten Syria over its latest chemical weapons attack on civilians. Yet previous reports indicated that after the collapse of ISIS, Trump had been wanting to declare victory and go home.

Well, that’s the trick, isn’t it? The “win and go home” meme is popular among America First types whose pro-Americanism makes them want to be hawkish, but whose narrowly defined nationalism makes them want to avoid any kind of long-term commitment or involvement in the rest of the world. So they want to go in with guns blazing to shoot the bad guys, then get out of Dodge.

I used to hear this from people on the right who were uncomfortable with the “quagmire” of a counterinsurgency war in Iraq. They never seemed to realize that “win and go home” was the original plan. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s plan for Iraq was to invade with overwhelming force, win a decisive conventional military victory, then withdraw as soon as possible. It didn’t work out, and the irony is that a large part of the reason why it didn’t work was because Rumsfeld was so eager to leave that he didn’t commit an occupation force large enough to control Iraq and prevent the outbreak of an insurgency. We ended having to commit those troops in the “surge” four years later.

When you look back at history, it’s hard to find a good example of “win and go home.” The Civil War was followed by a decade of Reconstruction and a century of simmering conflict over civil rights. After World War I, the boys did come home right away, and the Germans never bothered us again, right? After World War II, we kept troops in Europe for more than four decades, first to supervise the reform and reconstruction of Germany and then to counter the Soviets. American troops are still in Europe 25 years after the Cold War, partly to counter a newly aggressive Russia.

The reason “win and go home” rarely works is because a military defeat of the enemy does not directly lead to reform of the underlying institutions and practices that made the war necessary in the first place. Military defeat is a material factor, not a cultural one. It can make lasting cultural and political reforms possible, if we have the wisdom and courage to implement the right ones, but a military presence is often required for years or decades to support those reforms. In the other theater of World War II, it took seven years to establish political reforms in Japan and make them a reliable ally.

Those on the right who advocate “win and go home” conveniently forget these previous examples. So when a similar engagement is required in conflicts in the Middle East, they react as if this is somehow unprecedented and conclude that political and cultural reforms are impossible and just shouldn’t be attempted. That, in turn, becomes a kind of defeatism. “Win and go home” turns into just, “stay home.”

More often, it becomes a cycle. We hang back and do nothing until some insult or outrage—whether it’s 9/11 or this latest chemical weapons attack—prompts us to go in and shoot things up for a while. But when things get messy, we decide we don’t want to get bogged down, so we bug out and hope the problem goes away. Then a few years later, when things explode again, we came roaring back in. This cycle is the product of a short-range, ad hoc, reactive approach. But a successful foreign policy requires patient long-term effort.

In the case of Syria, it is clearly intolerable to allow a group like ISIS to operate, creating exactly the kind of conditions that led to 9/11. But if you want to keep them down and out, here are some of the considerations, as presented to President Trump by his advisors.

Foes of the United States have cheered the prospect of an American withdrawal. But America’s regional allies, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, and its partners in Syria, dread it.

They argue that American forces are still needed to provide a check on Russia, which considers Syria its strategic foothold in the Middle East, and Iran, whose proxies are building a military infrastructure in Syria to counter Israel.

A withdrawal could also leave the door open for the return of the Islamic State in some parts of Syria, the very reason the United States gave for intervening in the country to begin with.

The basic condition that makes the Syrian war a dangerous engine of conflict is the continued rule of the vicious Assad regime, and its sponsorship by Russia. They need to be either dislodged or countered by a long-term effort, because Vladimir Putin doesn’t have our impatient timeline.

What is required is not constant large-scale war, but usually a relatively small and continuing effort. What we’ve been doing in Syria so far is on a small scale, one that hasn’t really been noticed by the general public, which is probably one of the reasons why it has been allowed to be successful. But it’s time to stop thinking in terms of “win and go home.” Let’s just worry about winning.

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