The small and large cost of not having an exit strategy

Always have an exit strategy. That is one of politics’ rules some learn the hard way. It is also a rule of diplomacy and war. Anzac Day is a reminder.

Gerry Brownlee and John Key learnt the exit strategy lesson the hard way when their gung-ho get-rich-quick drive to dig minerals up in schedule 4 land ended in a messy backdown.

Steven Joyce exudes sensibility and confidence, coupled with (usually) a disarming courtesy. But his bill protecting ultra-fast broadband (UFB) contracts from regulatory oversight until 2020 to reassure private-sector investors in his big public-private partnership has excited a rare phalanx of opponents spanning telecommunications companies (apart from Telecom), user and consumer groups and political parties and criticism ranging from blatant self-interest to high principles of competition law.

At a press conference on Wednesday on non-UFB rural broadband Joyce allowed the possibility of change in the bill. If so the cabinet will need to weigh the substantial financial cost against the political cost of ploughing on.

War magnifies such political choices and costs. So, over time, does repressive autocracy. The costs can be catastrophic.

This day in 1915 bungling British generals and their mercurial political boss, Winston Churchill, tossed the first Anzacs on to a killing ground where they could not win.

That mistake was part of a whopper: a war supposed to be “over by Christmas” in 1914 descended into a mass slaughter over four years which killed three empires and mortally wounded the fourth, the “victorious” British. None had an exit strategy in 1914.

Two decades later Germany had no exit strategy from its hubristic attack on Russia.

President George Bush in Iraq eight years ago aimed to hobble Al Qaeda and implant American democracy. Al Qaeda wasn’t there, American democracy isn’t and the illegal adventure did serious fiscal damage to the United States, now on “negative watch”.

Across in Afghanistan Nato has been mired for nine years. If it “wins”, what is the exit strategy that secures that “win”? If there is no “win”, will the retreat be worse for the world than never having gone in?

Ask that of Libya.

An important chapter in American Gene Sharp’s manual for peaceful political change, which appears to have guided some dissidents in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world over the past few months, warns against returning a ruler’s fire if the ruler turns vicious because the ruler has greater firepower. Gaddafi turned vicious. He started killing civilians. There is now civil war.

Nato, backed by Arab League and United Nations Security Council resolutions, imposed a “no fly” zone to stop Gaddafi killing his people. (A joke doing the Wellington rounds: New Zealand is surely a “no-fly zone” specialist since the fighter wing was grounded.)

Nato’s Libya action is the first military application of the 2001 United Nations “responsibility to protect” (R2P) doctrine, a Canadian-led reformulation of the former humanitarian intervention notion which was discredited when the “international community” abandoned Rwandans to slaughter in 1994. In Libya Nato nations have been careful not to wage war but only to defend citizens.

Because Libya is the first armed R2P intervention, R2P’s future usefulness — and use — may hang on how it turns out.

Columbia University’s Michael Doyle argued in Foreign Affairs magazine in March that Nato might be setting up a “prolonged and costly civil war”. Military action under R2P, Doyle said, “should not be undertaken unless it is likely to be successful” but “success has yet to be defined” in Libya’s case. The great to-and-fro sweeps of armies across Libya in the second world war illustrates how hard defining it is: will it amount to an unstable partition?

Nato’s exit there might be messy and might leave a mess behind. That could set back liberalisation elsewhere in the region — and R2P.

But look out a few decades: history might be on the side of Nato and the rebels and reformers.

It is possible to divine parallels between events in the Arab world now and upheavals across Europe in 1848 and the youthful protests in Europe and North America (and here) in 1968.

In 1848 and 1968 the pre-existing orders recovered with at most limited concessions. But over time the rebels’ mores and ambitions seeped into general mores and, consequently, into political systems — even, arguably infecting the youth of the Soviet empire and contributing to its collapse in 1989-90.

Protesters and sympathisers in the Arab world also exhibit mores and politics at odds with the established orders. If 1848 and 1968 are guides, in some or most states autocratic repression might return and/or endure, possibly for decades and to varying degrees depending on regime type, but this year’s outpourings may be prefiguring more general changes in mores and political orders in due course.

Nato needs a Libyan exit strategy now. But over time it may well be surviving or new Arab autocrats who will need one. Skilful politicians in old democracies could offer some advice .