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.