Is the Powell Doctrine Bankrupt?

I posed this to a friend of mine less as a question than as a statement of fact. In my view, the events in Vietnam, which led to the formation of the Powell doctrine, followed by recent events in Iraq, justified this claim.

When thinking of the Powell Doctrine, the first thing that comes to mind is its embrace of overwhelming force. When you confront an enemy, use everything in your arsenal to pound him into the dust. In the arena of conventional, mid-intensity war, this sounds like common sense, but arising as it did, out of Vietnam, led me to my short declaration, sent through email, that the Powell Doctrine was “bankrupt.”

I came to this conclusion initially because force was never an issue in Vietnam. There were many operations where over 1,000 tons of ammunition was used for every kill of a Vietcong guerilla or NVA regular. The United States poured vast amounts of its treasure into the war in Vietnam pursuing a strategy of attrition. Yet more force would not have been effective. What was needed was a strategy of counterinsurgency, which the Army effectively quashed during the war whenever the issue was raised.

Then-Major Colin Powell left Vietnam deeply disillusioned with the way the war was conducted. But like many of his colleagues, he came away from the conflict having learned all the wrong lessons. How else to explain a doctrine whose main point is overwhelming force, when winning against insurgents, America’s most likely conflict for the foreseeable future, requires less force and more population security?

Thirty years after the end of the conflict in Vietnam, we see these wrong lessons being applied in Iraq.

Comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam abound. Even this page has drunk from that well on numerous occasions. The differences between the two conflicts are stark, but more from a geopolitical than military standpoint. By that, I mean that the strategies, the very concept of our military, have not changed all that much in the last thirty years, despite our amazing advances in technology and war fighting ability. Iraq is a far more important state to our national security and foreign policy than Vietnam ever was. But alas, how people are killed in war remains consistent regardless of a nation’s importance or our technology. When we think of how we wage war in Iraq, and how this relates to the Powell Doctrine, it is important to trace the steps from Saigon to Baghdad.

Our military had been defeated outright for the first time in its history in Vietnam, and there was a whole lot of brass at the Pentagon that wanted to know why. The answers have been flowing from historians and the military itself for decades now: we failed to provide security for the population of South Vietnam; we pursued a strategy of attrition and rewards for high body counts that contributed to American servicemen being cavalier distinguishing friend from foe; we waged merciless war from the air and with artillery that was even less discriminating in who it killed; we linked our fortunes with an incompetent and corrupt government in Saigon. All these and more led to the North Vietnamese prevailing. Indeed, our greatest sins in Indochina related to the harrowing way we waged war there. We were true instruments of death.

Consequently, many post-conflict analyses correctly conclude that more force would not have made a difference in South Vietnam. But here is where denial sets in. In the 1980’s, a popular school of thought arose at the Pentagon. It was not our failure to wage counterinsurgency operations in South Vietnam that lost us the war. Rather, it was our unwillingness to expand the war to North Vietnam/Laos/Cambodia/Thailand at the outset or at various stages in the conflict that led to our defeat. In this new view, a drastically expanded war (whose scope quickly would have compromised our military’s ability to wage it) was the only path to victory. Here lay the roots of overwhelming force.

Although this new school of expanded war in Vietnam was popular, it involved the history of that conflict, not the future concept of the military itself. Predictably, the Pentagon continued to ignore planning for future counterinsurgency operations, not because they failed to recognize the Army’s or the Marines’ inability to wage them, but because the generals at the Pentagon felt that they could avoid an insurgent war altogether by picking where to fight with more scrutiny. They were not planning and training for counterinsurgency because they thought they would never be suckered into fighting one again. This is patently ridiculous. Any smart enemy will naturally gravitate to the areas where we are weakest. We may be able to begin a war how we want, but desperation on the part of the enemy will force him to adapt; that is, enter into insurgency warfare. It’s the only way we can lose.

The Powell Doctrine arose out of this voluntary, strategic blindness. Overwhelming force, which cannot be used effectively against insurgents, is one way of binding the military and ensuring it never fights insurgents again. But this only works if the enemy agrees to follow our rules. The other conditions of the doctrine, based in part on conditions first put forth by Caspar Weinberger, also fit perfectly into the Pentagon’s idea of what constituted war as we would like to fight it:

  • Is a vital national security interest threatened?
  • Do we have a clear attainable objective?
  • Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
  • Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted?
  • Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
  • Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
  • Is the action supported by the American people?
  • Do we have broad international support?

General Powell first enunciated the doctrine publicly following Operation Desert Storm, the single perfect application of his conditions. The war was a mid-intensity, short duration conflict against an enemy that obliged us by playing to our strengths. After they were pounded by our military, we imposed our conditions for peace, packed up, and left. The Powell Doctrine, it would seem, works. But if one takes a closer look at the conditions of the doctrine, one notices that fulfilling them is hardly a practice in objectivity.

Is a vital national security interest threatened?

Vital interests tend to change from one administration to the next. Whereas President Clinton saw intervening in Kosovo to be necessary, President George W. Bush has made it clear that he would not have ordered NATO into combat there. Andrew Krepinevich pointed out in his book, The Army and Vietnam, another instance where this happened, as President Reagan elevated the situation in El Salvador to a vital interest upon assuming office in 1981. Also, he wondered whether or not Grenada would have been considered a vital interest if the Cuban soldiers occupying the island had not been willing to engage the American military in conventional fashion. In this case, vital interests were shaped by how willing our adversaries were to ignore their own self-interests and play to our strengths. All in all, though, if our leadership merely says a vital national security interest is threatened, whether that be a consensus view or not, then the condition is met. Indeed, there has never been a conflict waged by our military where this claim has not been made.

Do we have a clear attainable objective?

Once again, this is hardly objective. No commander wages war thinking they have an unclear objective. Even General Westmoreland never recognized how open and meandering his strategy of attrition in Vietnam was. No commander would be allowed to wage war unless he could demonstrate how it would be won. No objective, no war. This goes for civilian leadership as well, who have a nation full of people to bring on board their grand designs.

Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?

Like the above conditions, war is not waged without those in charge at least thinking they have this one nailed down.

Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted?

There is no fault with this condition, although it has been violated at least twice in the last forty years.

Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?

This is the denouement of the Powell Doctrine. Americans have been wary of protracted conflict and high casualties ever since the defeat in Vietnam. This condition addresses that anxiety. Following the defeat of the Iraqi army in 1991, we bugged out so fast we had no reason to fear what could happen had we pitched our tents. We made sure we would never have to face an insurgency there by not occupying the country nor deposing the ruling regime. That war was one of those rare instances where one side dictates every action on the battlefield, from where and when the war starts, how it will be fought, how many casualties there will be, and most importantly, when we can declare victory and pull out. But most times, war is entered with the outcome far from certain. This condition tacitly ignores the possibility that we may need to engage in a conflict that tests our national will, and whose outcome is extremely uncertain at the outset. Were this condition to be rigorously applied to the Second World War, we never would have fought it. Clearly, the aforementioned “vital national security interests” can negate this condition immediately.

Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?

This condition, like others, is met at the discretion of leadership. They think they have fulfilled it, therefore they have.

Is the action supported by the American people?

A seemingly obvious condition for waging war, especially after the way the public soured on Vietnam. Yet American intervention in South Vietnam began years before the public turned on the conflict. You cannot begin a war without the support of the public, but there is no guarantee that support will last. If this does indeed happen, then it will appear the condition was never met.

Do we have broad international support?

If it is possible to have a second denouement, this is it. Operation Desert Storm was supported by an international coalition that was gracious enough to foot the bill when all was said and done. In this new era of globalization and interconnectivity, this condition is more important than ever. Unilateralism, in this day and age, is the surest route to disaster.

What I mostly gather from the above conditions of the Powell Doctrine, is that the very outcome of the conflict, whether it is won or lost, determines retroactively whether or not the doctrine has been applied. When we enter into a war, we appear to fulfill most if not all conditions at the outset. But it is not until the casualties are counted, the costs have been added up, and new political realities are in place that we can truly say whether or not these common sense conditions for waging war have been followed. We just can’t know before then. With the exception of two of the above conditions.

In the case of the Iraq War, the Bush administration clearly violated the condition against waging war before diplomacy had been exhausted, and they went to war without broad international support. This has left the appearance that the war was unnecessary, and has hurt our international standing considerably.

I would also argue that another condition was violated, by both the Pentagon and the Bush administration, to the point that it has precluded victory in Iraq. The risks and costs of the Iraq War were not fully and frankly analyzed. The administration was suffering from the travails of groupthink when it had illusions of being welcomed with open arms by flag-waving, liberated Iraqis, all the while never considering the gigantic administrative hole that would be left by a collapsing government. They failed to plan for the resulting anarchy, and that initial lawlessness put reconstruction back by years. The military leaders at the Pentagon, in their continued zeal to ignore the reality of insurgency warfare, never seriously considered the possibility that after the Iraqi army had been defeated and the country occupied, that the fighting would not end there. Not to disparage the effectiveness of our military in conventional operations — they are without peer — but one of the reasons the Iraqi army collapsed so quickly was that some units were dissolving and melting away, strictly for the purpose of picking up arms at a more opportune time. Not only did they fail to recognize the possibility that the conflict would move into insurgency warfare, they placed an occupying force in Iraq that had no idea how to fight it.

When the White House and the Pentagon both failed to recognize what would happen when our military occupied a country in a foreign and largely hostile land, all the other conditions of the Powell Doctrine began to fall like dominos.

Is the Powell Doctrine bankrupt? After much back and forth with my friend, after much thought, and despite all the negatives listed above, I don’t think it is. One has to remember that the Powell Doctrine is nothing more than a guide. It is not law, nor is it “THE Checklist for United States Military Action.” In no way are the conditions of the doctrine binding. Their significance lies in their obviousness. They have the benefit of immediately cutting through bureaucratic fog and imposing a test. It is a positive development to think that our leaders are at least considering these issues before they engage in war. But it is a doctrine that I believe is deeply flawed.

For one, it has to be applied retroactively, or there is no guarantee that its conditions have been met. For another, it can only successfully be applied to mid-intensity, short-duration conflict that leaves the enemy regime intact. In no other instance has it proven effective. It is a doctrine designed solely for the purpose of preventing another Vietnam. That is, complete and total avoidance of insurgency warfare. But as the insurgency in Iraq has shown, we cannot assume we have a measure of control over the arena that prevents an enemy playing to our weaknesses.

Insurgent warfare is our greatest weakness. We have yet to show we can win. But when we have a conventional military that cannot be challenged conventionally, it is inconceivable to think an enemy would commit suicide by engaging us in any manner but insurgency.

Unfortunately, it is thinking like that in the Powell Doctrine — common sense bullet points that while good-intentioned, have little basis in reality — that led us into the mess we are in now.

Most of all, though, the Powell Doctrine, by itself, is now irrelevant in how we choose to go to war. Its one success, Operation Desert Storm, was also arguably the only time it has been applied. (Even it’s application here is suspect, as General Powell didn’t enunciate the doctrine, at least publicly, until after the conflict was over. More likely, it was an application of Weinberger’s conditions, which Powell borrowed from, and the general concept that our military followed in the 1980’s. It could also be argued that the Kosovo conflict applied the doctrine.) The ghosts of Vietnam, which birthed the doctrine, had been exorcised by our decisive victory in that conflict. Surely, we would never find ourselves in such an untenable position again. But when considered within the broader picture of our military’s concept, however, it jumps to the fore. It provides insight into the thinking that went into establishing that concept (mid-intensity, conventional warfare against comparable state actors), and that has left us still vulnerable to insurgency, decades after we first encountered it. If anything is bankrupt, it is this intractableness. Every day we are reminded how painfully relevant this is.