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April 15, 2009

Bring Back the Powell Doctrine
Posted by Michael Cohen

I've been writing a lot in recent weeks about the follies of counter-insurgency doctrine and it's caused me to reminisce about that old standby from the 1990s: the Powell Doctrine

You remember the Powell Doctrine; liberal hawks hated it because it tended to preclude humanitarian interventions and neo-conservatives dismissed it because it meant no wars of choice and the muscular military strategy that they favored. You don't hear much about it anymore, which is kind of surprising, particularly when you consider that after the awful carnage of the past 6 years, it couldn't be more relevant.

With many of the leading figures in the armed forces learning the wrong lessons from the war in Iraq it's worth re-examining the basic questions that Powell said needed to be asked before the United States went to war.

  • Is the political objective we seek to achieve important, clearly defined and understood?
  • Have all other nonviolent policy means failed?
  • Will military force achieve the objective?
  • At what cost?
  • Have the gains and risks been analyzed? 
  • How might the situation that we seek to alter, once it is altered by force, develop further and what might be the consequences?

In addition to these queries, three others are generally also added to the list: Is the action supported by the American people? Do we have genuine broad international support? And is there an exit strategy?

But what made the Powell Doctrine so relevant in the 1990s (and its precursor the Weinberger Doctrine in the 1980s) is that it reflected the right lessons from the debacle in Vietnam: namely that America must avoid a protracted military engagement in a conflict that does not impact the country's vital interests and it must make the use of force an absolute last resort.

Now it's worth noting that while the precepts of the Powell Doctrine were followed to the letter in the Gulf War (and quite successfully I might add); twelve years later during the Iraq war both the civilian leadership (which included Colin Powell, of course) and the uniformed military pretty much ignored it. In 2003, there was no clear political objective to the war in Iraq; non-violent measures or even alternative force packages were never considered; no cost-benefit analysis of going to war was performed; little thought was given to the consequences of invading and occupying Iraq; the war barely had majority popular support; with a few exceptions our key Allies were generally opposed and, of course, as we well know there was no exit strategy.

Now one would think after another horrible military and political debacle - that bears striking resemblance to the tragedy of the Vietnam War - the military and civilian leadership would be running with open arms to embrace a doctrine that keeps them out of protracted conflicts with unclear political objectives that are not in the national interest.

Yet, the exact opposite is occurring. Instead of learning the lesson that the first four years of the Iraq War should have taught us - force must be a last resort, the US military is not equipped to do nation-building, military incursions must be limited and they must be combined with a clear political objective; COIN advocates are fixated on the transitory success of the past two years in Iraq and the applications of those techniques for future conflicts (and I use the word success lightly as it is hardly clear that counter-insurgency techniques were even responsible for the temporary respite in violence in Iraq).

Now of course some COIN-advocates will tell you that Iraq would not have been such a debacle had counter-insurgency techniques been used from the very beginning; but of course this is an unknowable proposition and to be sure, there was zero political will for the massive undertaking that would have been required for a COIN-strategy to have worked. Instead of arguing whether the US should have been trying to eat soup with a knife from the very beginning of the Iraq war - I would argue we should have just skipped the meal altogether.

The simple reality is that counter-insurgency techniques are only activated if you ignore the crucial lesson about the use of force - it must be an absolute last resort, it must be limited and there must be an exit strategy. But counter-insurgency advocates, and their iron clad belief in a Long War with Islamic extremists, as opposed to a near-term conflict with Al Qaeda believe that the US must be prepared to use force not less often, but more often. This is a recipe for more Iraqs and more Vietnams.

If this terrible war should teach us anything it is that the bar to get involved in overseas wars should be raised even higher than that suggested by Powell. We must only use force when our absolute vital interests are threatened or the homeland is at risk.

Does the US need to have a strong military to deter future conflicts? Absolutely. But the key to effective deterrence comes not necessarily from the use of that force, but instead the threat of force and clear red lines that will provoke it. And this doesn't mean cratering our military, but it does mean focusing our military on those places where we have the greatest comparative military advantage - our Air Force, our Navy, our Special Forces, our force projection capability, our utilization of technology etc. It also means minimizing those elements of our armed forces where our advantage is minimal at best: large set piece conflicts or significant, troop-heavy, military engagements because once we've put a significant number of boots on the ground - anything can happen.  Some may argue that "you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you" to mean that you can't predict future conflicts. Hooey. The future may be unknowable, but the criteria by which you use force need not be. Prepare for the conflicts you need to fight and the ones you can win.

That's the essence of the Powell Doctrine; avoid at all costs the unknowables that the use of American military force can engender. As Robert McNamara reminds us (and he has some experience on the issue "war is so complex it's beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables."

It seems like a pretty good thing to remember for possible future conflicts to come.


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The Powell Doctrine? How about the United Nations doctrine?

from Article 2, Chapter 1, UN Charter:
The Organization and its Members, in pursuit of the Purposes stated in Article 1, shall act in accordance with the following Principles.

1. The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members.
2. All Members, in order to ensure to all of them the rights and benefits resulting from membership, shall fulfill in good faith the obligations assumed by them in accordance with the present Charter.
3. All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.
4. All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.

The simple fact is the the United Nations doesn't exist for the National Security Network. There is no mention of the UN on its "What We Believe" page. It's all about American world leadership, without any nod to world collegiality.

So here we're asked to use the Powell Doctrine cost/benefit calculation for illegal elective war, and calling it progress "for possible future conflicts to come."

The Powell Doctrine developed because Vietnam veterans like Powell realized how detrimental COIN warfare is for the Army's well being and preparedness for war. However academics in the nineties wrote a revisionist account of the Vietnam War in which they stated that the US Army could have won the war if practiced COIN warfare like it did from 1969-1973. But what these academics, unlike Powell, failed to realize is the damage that was done to the US Army even during the "successful," years in Vietnam.

Michael - You say "the war barely had majority popular support...."

That may be a justified as an off hand reference, but it does ignore that fact that there was substantial opposition, even on the eve of the war. This is important because most commentators seem to have forgotten that there was real opposition.

After almost a year of Administration propaganda and after Powell's UN speech, according to a USA Today poll only 47% favored going to war without UN Security Council approval:

Posted 3/16/2003 10:48 PM Updated 3/17/2003 1:17 PM

Poll: Most back war, but want U.N. support
By Richard Benedetto, USA TODAY
With a war against Iraq perhaps days away, Americans are backing President Bush but remain split over launching an attack without United Nations support, a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll shows.

By a 2-to-1 ratio, Americans favor invading Iraq with U.S. ground troops to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Not since November 2001 have they approved so overwhelmingly. Nearly six in 10 say they're ready for such an invasion "in the next week or two."

But that support drops off if the U.N. backing being sought by the United States, Britain and Spain Monday is not obtained. If the U.N. Security Council rejects a resolution paving the way for military action, only 54% of Americans favor a U.S. invasion. And if the Bush administration does not seek a final Security Council vote, support for a war drops to 47%.

But that support drops off if the U.N. backing being sought by the United States, Britain and Spain Monday is not obtained. If the U.N. Security Council rejects a resolution paving the way for military action, only 54% of Americans favor a U.S. invasion. And if the Bush administration does not seek a final Security Council vote, support for a war drops to 47%.

But that support drops off if the U.N. backing being sought by the United States, Britain and Spain Monday is not obtained. If the U.N. Security Council rejects a resolution paving the way for military action, only 54% of Americans favor a U.S. invasion. And if the Bush administration does not seek a final Security Council vote, support for a war drops to 47%.

Congress should create an independent blue-ribbon panel or similar body to investigate a host of previously unreviewable activities of the Bush administration, including its detention, interrogation and surveillance programs. Only by chronicling and confronting the past in a comprehensive, bipartisan fashion can we reclaim our moral authority and establish a credible path forward to meet the complex challenges of a post-Sept. 11 world. replica rolex
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Thanks to the Powell Doctrine and the wise use of American military power, the First Gulf War was a clear and decisive military and foreign policy victory, perhaps the first such unambiguous victory since World War II.

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