Sun, Dec 14, 2003 - Page 9 News List

`Exit strategy:' a useful phrase when thinking is uncomfortable

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

"The Bush administration has begun searching for an exit strategy," wrote NPR's Daniel Schorr in a recent Christian Science Monitor column. He noted that the phrase coming from the Bush White House went in the other direction: "stay the course."

US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, peppered with questions about when the US forces would leave Iraq, found a creative way to treat the phrase that refused to focus on departure: "Our exit strategy in Iraq is success. It's that simple. The objective is not to leave; the objective is to succeed in our mission."

The penetration of a new phrase is sometimes measured in cartoon captions, especially in The New Yorker. In 1995, a bride-to-be was pictured in a Robert Mankoff cartoon responding to her swain on bended knee: "OK, but what's our exit strategy?" In 1999, James Stevenson drew a prisoner in a cell asking his cell mate, "What's your exit strategy?"

Alistair Cooke, the British-born American commentator whose weekly Letter From America has long added a touch of class to the BBC, took note of the jailbird exit strategists of '99 and observed, "`Exit strategy' is one of those simple-sounding, actually menacing catch phrases we've started using about war when it's uncomfortable to think a little deeper and acknowledge something unpleasant." He cited others: "in harm's way" and "putting our men at risk." He guessed that "exit strategy came in with the Gulf War."

Those of us in the phrasal etymological dodge cannot rely on anybody's recollection; citations are the thing. My researcher, Kathleen Miller, accepted the mission and enlisted the aid of Fred Shapiro, who as editor of the Yale Dictionary of Quotations touches all the scholarly databases. Fred came up with several uses in the late 1970s in business publications. In the Winter 1977 issue of the California Management Review, William Matthews and Wayne Boucher wrote critically of a company that "continues to attempt to achieve the established objectives -- way past the point at which, if the company had had a `planned exit strategy,' it would have decided to terminate the venture."

At that point I would have emitted a gleeful aha! but Miller kept coming up with the use of the phrase by economists who cited a seminal 1970 book by Albert Hirschman about three strategies: "Exit, Voice and Loyalty." According to a 2001 paper presented at a California conference by the Moscow economist Vadim Radaev, Hirschman postulated three strategies to deal with uncertainty caused by new formal rules: The voice strategist publicly questions the orders, the loyalty strategist complies and the exit strategist avoids the new rules.

At my command ("Get Hirschman, if he hasn't exited"), Miller found the 88-year-old social scientist where the geniuses hang out, at the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.

Did he coin the phrase? No; it's nowhere in his book. He used "exit option."

"It was a somewhat new concept then," Hirschman recalls. "I used `exit' to indicate a possibility, a strategy. When you are dissatisfied, you can use your `voice' option or your `exit' option. It is not so different from the political use today. `Speak up or get out.'"

That original where's-my-hat sense has changed to "a blueprint for bailout." In political and journalistic use, the phrase's connotation is accusatory: Today's question, "Where is your exit strategy?" connotes "How do you plan to get us out of this mess at a certain date?" In his answer, Rumsfeld chose to counter that polemical connotation by defining the mission not as exit but as success.

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