During his tenure as chairman [of the Joint Chiefs of Staff], Gen. Colin Powell stated the principles he thought the U.S. government should follow when contemplating the use of military force. According to Powell, the situation should involve a vital national security interest. There should be a clear and obtainable objective. A clear exit strategy should be planned from the beginning. The action should have broad political support. The military plan should employ decisive and overwhelming force in order to achieve a rapid result. And the country should use force only as a last resort. Powell's principles were no doubt the product of his negative experiences as an officer during the Vietnam War and the results of Operation Desert Storm, which seemed at the time to be a vindication of his ideas.
Colin Powell at the United Nations in 2003, with his "anthrax vial" prop, making his case based on lies for invading Iraq
It was actually Reagan's Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger who first articulated these basic concepts, and was even once called the Weinberger Doctrine. But sometime during Powell's tenure as JCS Chairman, his name became attached to it. For Weinberger's original statement of the perspective that eventually came to be known as the Powell Doctrine, see The Uses of Military Power (11/28/1984) Frontline Web site.
The Weinberger-Powell Doctrine was always a corollary of the stab-in-the-back theory of the Vietnam War, the idea that says our glorious generals won the war but then the unworthy and gutless civilians back home yanked their stunning victory out from under them.
The connection isn't obvious on the surface, e.g., in Haddick's description above. But after the Vietnam War, the officer corps developed a broad consensus that dominated their approach, which basically said we'll avoid "another Vietnam" by concentrating on planning to fight the Soviets in Europe and avoid any more "small wars" like Vietnam. As Andrew Bacevich explains in The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (2005), the Gulf War of 1991 reinforced that orientation. Because Saddam's army and military doctrine was modeled along the lines of Soviet regular forces.
The idea of avoiding "small wars" - the military's term for any war smaller than an all-out conventional war with a major competitor like the USSR during the Cold War - isn't a bad one in itself. But the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine was unrealistic on the face of it. Virtually no war would qualify under those conditions. It's arguable that even the Gulf War of 1991 didn't fit those conditions, since victory as defined in that war (liberating Kuwait from Iraqi occupation) wasn't the same as a total victory against Iraq itself. And, as it turned out in practice, that was the beginning of a protracted military commitment with intermittent instances of active conflict, that set the stage for the Iraq War of 2003-?
But the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine makes for a great alibi for our infallible generals. The public decides the war isn't worth further sacrifice? We told you we needed overwhelming support! The war drags on for five, ten, 15 years? We told you we needed to have overpowering force to achieve a decisive win!
Most people wouldn't quarrel with the notion that any war should be in the national interest. Nor with the idea that war should be a last resort. But with the US defining our strategy and maintaining overwhelming military superiority to apply everywhere in the world, "national interest" is defined very broadly. With so expansive a definition, there will always be some corner of the world that looks to someone like a vital and immediate threat to US national security. The Obama administration, for example, is escalating our role in Somalia, where Old Man Bush intervened in the closing months of his administration: U.S. Aiding Somalia in Its Plan to Retake Its Capital by Jeffrey Gettleman New York Times 03/05/10.
The stipulation that a military commitment should have strong majority support may in practice have been the most toxic aspect of the whole Weinberger-Powell Doctrine. As democratic as it sounds on the surface, aside from the alibi aspects of it, it has encouraged the already deeply-ingrained tendency of military leaders to try to manipulate domestic public opinion on wars. It didn't stop a major new credibility gap from developing among the public over the claims our military leaders make about the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. It's also encouraged a troublesome development that Steve Corbett and Michael Davidson discuss in The Role of the Military in Presidential PoliticsParameters Winter 2009-10.
Haddick thinks that the "Mullen Doctrine" has replaced the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine. He defines it via a quotation from current JCS Chief Adm. Michael Mullen:
We must not look upon the use of military forces only as a last resort, but as potentially the best, first option when combined with other instruments of national and international power.
We must not try to use force only in an overwhelming capacity, but in the proper capacity, and in a precise and principled manner. And we must not shrink from the tug of war -- no pun intended -- that inevitably plays out between policymaking and strategy execution. Such interplay is healthy for the republic and essential for ultimate success. [my emphasis]
Despite the qualifying "potentially", that "best, first option" concept spells nothing but trouble.
Caspar Weinberger (1917-2006), shielded from prosecution over the Iran-Contra scandal by a Presidential pardon from Old Man Bush
The formal renunciation of the overwhelming force dogma is a welcome development. In practice, the overwhelming force and quick victory of the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine meant heavy reliance on air power. And that heavy reliance on air power has been one of the biggest problems around US military interventions since the Second World War.
I don't quite know what to make of the "tug of war ... between policymaking and strategy execution" part. If it means dumping the idea of which Republican politicians are so fond (at least in theory) that once a war has been decided upon, the civilian government is somehow obligated to wage it exactly as our glorious generals demand and give them all the resources they ask for as soon as they ask for them, then that's a very good thing.
But the notion that war and killing may often be the "best, first option" for US foreign policy is on its surface an embrace of notions associated with so-called "humanitarian war", one of the worst oxymorons ever conceived, the favored doctrine of liberal hawks. But its also obvious that it can be applied to less humanitarian ends by policymakers who are anything but liberal.
Haddick's comment on this is sobering:
The Mullen Doctrine accepts that every day for the foreseeable future, U.S. military forces will shoot at, or will be shot at, by somebody somewhere in the world. Given this seemingly permanent state of war, Mullen says that politicians, soldiers, and the public will need to engage in an open-ended discussion that will constantly adjust how the country employs its military forces.
Mullen assumes that the public now accepts that low-level warfare is an enduring fact of life. If he is wrong about this, the Powell Doctrine could rise from the grave. [my emphasis]
But the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine isn't a good alternative to war as the "best, first option". The far better option is adopting a far less expansive concept of the American role in the world and for our policymakers to do their dead-level best to avoid war whenever realistically possible.
After all, what Haddick calls "this seemingly permanent state of war" arose from a time in which the military was ostensibly following the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine. See Rummy's "shock-and-awe" campaign in Iraq, which was meant to achieve the Weinberger-Powell goal of quick victory through air power. Now this month we're seven years into the Iraq War, and hoping that Obama will stick to his commitments with Iraq to remove all combat forces by next year.